IAIN WRIGHT: Rail service needs drastic improvement

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On Saturday, I took my youngest son to see Star Wars again. It was definitely a boys’ day out and we took the train from Hartlepool to Newcastle. It’s a great journey, hugging the beautiful coastline up from Hartlepool, through Seaham and onto the stunning engineering excellence of the bridges spanning the Rivers Wear and Tyne.

The journey was great, although it was crowded the staff were helpful and professional and the train punctual. However, the journey was taken on a Pacer train that must be about 35 years old, the oldest rolling stock in the entire country.

I used to do that journey from Hartlepool to Newcastle a lot when I worked there. Now, I use the Grand Central service to travel to Westminster every week. An effective, modern, safe and punctual railway network is essential to the running of a developed nation. Of course, this requires money to be able to pay for it. That money, by and large, comes from rail fares.

However, for far too long, especially in the North, rail fares have gone up and up and passengers have not seen an increase in quality of journey. Rail fare increases are meant to pay for improvements in the quality of rolling stock and enhancements to journeys. But, far too often, there is precious little evidence of this.

On January 1, rail fares went up again. We have seen a sharp increase since 2010 of about 25 per cent on journeys like that from Hartlepool to Newcastle. That is about three times higher than the increase in wages, which means that commuters from Hartlepool to Newcastle, who do the journey everyday in order to go to work, have seen over the past five years a real pressure on simply travelling to and from work.

If these passengers had seen a marked improvement in the service, with more trains, with modern rolling stock, providing wi-fi and power sockets to allow people to work or use their devices for entertainment, as well as proper places for luggage, wheelchairs and bikes, and real-time data using technology about journey times and safety information, then perhaps steep hikes in rail fares could be tolerated. That, however, is far from being the case, especially in the North of England.

I get a lot of complaints from constituents about the quality and adequacy of rail services in our area. I have raised this in Parliament and with rail operators.

I can’t see how privatisation of British Rail some 25 years ago, with many different and small-scale rail franchises, has resulted in a better rail network, with higher service for passengers, a more reliable journey and better value-for-money.

If anything, the franchise system has led to fragmentation and not as much co-ordination as should be the case in a modern transport system.

I’m also concerned that some sort of British state-backed rail company is prohibited, but that many franchises are already owned and run by state owned companies from other countries. Why can’t a British government-backed railway company run a service and plough profits back into improved services or give back to British taxpayers rather than allow profits to be shipped to benefit the taxpayers of France or Germany?

I support the idea of a public railway, ensuring that when franchises expire a proper consideration of what is needed for passengers and the general running of the economy is provided, which could include public ownership.