Robert Forsythe attended this on behalf of Tyne Valley Line Rail Users Group . These comments however are made personally. It turned out that this was a significant and well attended meeting. Northern were looking for contributions for improvements over the rest of the franchise to September 2013, and then for something called CP4 and then for the possibility of bidding for the new franchise after 2013 which they hope would be a longer 15-20 year franchise.
The write down wish list firmly noted our contribution in respect of "timetables" (stock, marketing, and ticket machines were not in this), that following the improvements we want no regression and that the gaps into both Newcastle and Carlisle in the morning peaks could be plugged. The detail of the availability of a set was flagged. Both Gilsland and Blaydon were got onto the board as aspirations.
There was quite a discussion over regularly overcrowded trains and why further sets were not procured. Truly terrible daily horror stories throughout Northern were being recounted. Every day the 0824 from Denby Dale is a disgrace. The Sunday Bishop Auckland Whitby, this summer's innovation, was apparently week after week reaching Middlesbrough full and not uploading anyone there! There were people stating that 300 people were leaving a Class 156 at Whitby. Northern did not disagree but nor did they offer any solution. Expect overcrowded services to the Northumberland County Show and on Newcastle Match Days to continue with only tweaks to alleviate.
They asserted bluntly that nothing makes money and because a train is full and we say run an extra or couple another set, their answer is that the loss is simply increased. Bluntly, the more people who wish to travel by train, the more the railway will cost the nation. Only Intercity routes make money, not a single Northern service does. This they were categoric and public about this.
I think something new was learnt. It is not just about leasing extra sets. There is something more subtle. They lease these trains for a set number of hours or miles in a year from the ROSCO. It is in their interest to schedule them to the highest possible point and not a mite beyond because at that point hefty penalties are imposed. This means the problems are mainly driven by the leasing regime and not the true availability or otherwise of stock and staff. Possibly with a longer franchise Northern would press to obtain stock differently.
Something else was learnt about the rewrite of Part D of the Network Code. Currently a timetable change of any consequence takes 40 weeks to implement. Network Rail want to change this to 55 weeks.
A slide showed new signalling schemes in the Northern area. No mention of the Tyne Valley. I quizzed this. The Northern staff present were emphatic they had no knowledge of any scheme for further resignalling in the Tyne Valley. This could be questioned. I am not utterly confident. Network Rail might have missed these boys out!
A lot of time and space was given to what was the Manchester rail hub, now the Northern rail hub. Northern are pinning a lot on North Western electrification in the near future. Liverpool Manchester Blackpool. They see this as essential in that area and that by stock cascading it will help elsewhere. Accordingly the PTEs were well represented but no-one from Nexus.
My judgement is that whilst they will do what they can for the North East, we are quite marginal to their overall operation. The likes of Belford, Ashington, Whitby and Hexham are interesting but are way down the pile of Northern's priorities. The PTE routes in York and Lancs are the real force.
The meeting as a whole complimented Northern. A lot of good ideas were going onto the wish list including line re-openings like Ashington and Colne Skipton. A station for Peterlee was noted. Compared to Arriva and Northern Spirit, everyone likes Northern and the people running it. They try very hard and offer a really good lunch.
But don't get too blinded. If Northern gets a really long franchise, then throughout that franchise, Northumbria will be on the margins. Everyone involved as stakeholders in the North East including politicians should dwell on this. Is that the situation to run with for 15+ years? Reflect that Northern in Northumbria (border Darlington Carlisle Berwick, the Heaton depot duties) is virtually an operating island. A free thinker would say that if the politicians would grab the issue a better deal for the North East might come from a Northumbrian local trains franchise handling everything in those borders. It is quite a few routes: Tyne Valley, Northumberland Coast, Saltburn Bishop, Esk Valley, Durham Coast and potentially Ashington and Leamside. There is also the interaction with the Tyne Wear Metro, North York Moors and Weardale Railways. But to achieve that, action would have to be taken now or else the refranchise operation will roll forwards soon and we will have to accept crumbs rather than any concentrated ability to tailor things with the North East prominent.