Saturday, 12 July 2014

16-18 Travel in Northumberland: the Teenage Tax on 6th form & College students

Time to blog about about the Northumberland issue of the moment. 16-18 student travel costs and something I thought did not impact on me (yet), but I was wrong. I shall try for some history. Some way back under the last Liberal led admin, Northumberland enacted a new policy which said we will provide free travel to education for 16-18 year olds, both to locations in the county, and (subject to some constraints I suspect) without (that is important because Carlisle College, Newcastle College and others come into this). This presumably coupled into the idea that the norm that you go out to work at 16 has been well hammered:

Society has said
you stay in education
until you are eighteen.
Society then
had better help
pay for you
to get there!

Large rural
Shrugs them off.

The Labour party who with independent support now run Northumberland determined to undo this. They ran a consultation earlier in 2014 about making students pay up to £450 a head per year. When the finished proposals were published, this figure had become £600 p/a. Instant outrage because this was perceived as targetting rural parents. It being supposed that if you live in Guide Post and attend a high school in Ashington, the cost being nothing like four students from Berwick who want to go to the county's only agricultural college at Kirkley Hall. Somewhere into this was also injected the idea that no arrangements at all would be made if you chose 16-18 education outside the county. Additional to this is the idea that the county has conveyed that schools now have to arrange all of this through monies they have. The county in effect is totally ditching the organisation of 16-18 scholar travel.

I hope I have that right. Months of god almighty row have followed.  Try and  .

After the July county council meeting was cancelled for lack of business which does seem pretty odd bearing in mind how much non Teenage stuff came first in the meeting when it did take place, the Tory group demanded a meeting. With very bad grace, the Labour/Indy admin allowed this and the meeting took place on Friday past. The Tory motion was defeated 30/34. Along the way the two Independent councillors for Ovingham and Stocksfield (both I sense to be rather Tory places) enabled this to happen by voting with the administration. The Stocksfield councillor argues, along with the administration, that the motion as tabled by the Tories was in fact unlawful.

You can sense the difficulties in all of this. Some would say Labour were trying to score a political point by saying look what happens when we have to make all the cuts the government forces on us. Others (and the parents seem central to this) feel the south east Northumberland centred administration was trying to penalise what they perceive as the Liberal and Tory voting fringes. If so I find that quite appalling. And as this example taken from the Parents against website shows I suspect it is totally counter productive: " I live in the South east of the county in Ellington and my children travel to Ashington high. The school are informing parents to go to the NCC website to find the guidelines. I can't afford the £25 a week that it will cost for my son to go to the sixth form and I don't want him going to Northumberland college so not sure what he is going to do".

I feel the whole issue shows the funding double whammy Northumberland faces. One of England's most rural counties gets one of the worst per head inputs from government. A rural county spends more to deliver a service, this transport being a case in point. When that rural county then focusses its attention onto its urban South East core, there is a double whammy.

We got dragged into all this when just over a week before the vote, we learnt very accidentally that our 416 bus our fourteen year old uses, was being cancelled. There was an outcry and the decision has been deferred for two terms. Along that way, this categorically showed me that whatever the policy rights and wrongs, the implementation was in chaos. Downloading the implementation to the educational establishment was leaving those ill prepared, lacking in personnel and briefing.

I very much suspect the county has not done the investigations into the application of the policy prior to applying it. Instead a sense of a proxy war between providers like Northumberland College and Newcastle College is suggested. The former has announced free travel for all 16-18 year olds including those in Tyne & Wear. That will be an interesting bill to sustain. At a meeting in Prudhoe last Tuesday, I heard Councillor Paul Kelly from Ovingham explicitly say that this was all about preventing students leaving the county in order to drive up provision in the county. That is virtually Stalinist and in relation to Northumberland's geography and resource profoundly unrealistic.

In Tynedale it is almost impossible for many students to reach the Ashington campus of Northumberland college. Scores travel in by train to Newcastle College. Look at this bus timetable for the Carlisle College service. How do you think the teenagers of Halton Lea Gate are going to feel about this abandonment by the county?

I think that come the autumn the issue will be far from silent. I also prophesy that many more than just the 16-18 years olds are affected. Where-ever a bus (like our 416) had younger children sharing a service with 16-18 there is likely to be a knock on effect. At the West Area Committee Meeting last Tuesday, I raised this question. I could see eyebrows raise as people pondered it. The county senior officer could do no more than promise me that an answer would be forthcoming. Not so far, although the question was minuted.

It is really really sad and divisive that it has come to this. Northumberland faces many challenges and a them/us urban/rural split is not helpful. I really do sense an aggression and a refusal to work to productive solutions from Grant Davey, the council leader. You can make your own judgements by studying his words. One of the examples the council cited as a bad result of the existing policy leaves me open handed. It is those students in Berwick wanting to get to Kirkley Hall in the same county. What are we to do? Don't we want farmers in Northumberland from Northumberland. Have we gone completely crazy?

If you read this and can tweak my details, correcting any blatant error of fact or providing some amplication, I shall be pleased to consider same and make alterations.

SCUTINY: In various places there has been debate about why the decision was not "called in". From my perspective I found this an interesting read

This says "Hi Pamela - any one of the councillors could have called-in - not just the conservatives. There was a very good reason it was not called in though and I repeat why it was not here: Allison,

"Calling In" is when the relevant Scrutiny Committee formally ask the Policy Board to reconsider a decision. Some people have been given the misleading impression that had the decision been called in it would have been debated on and decided by Full Council this is not the case.

This decision went to the Scrutiny Committee before the Policy Board made the decision. The Conservatives voted against the Policy, Labour for and Anne Dale abstained.

We won that round and the Scrutiny advice was for them not to make the decision they did. Such a decision however is not binding upon the Policy Board and was therefore ignored.

We have lost faith with the current Scrutiny process as it is dominated by Labour (where in most councils as part of good practice the Chairmen of the Scrutiny Functions are usually opposition Councillors).

If we had called in the decision (something that can only be done by members from the Scrutiny committees) then it would have just gone back to the Policy Board and been ignored again.

It was always our intention to raise this at full Council at 2nd July as the only way to bring the opposition maximum publicity and publicly hold the Policy Board accountable for its decision.

One of the members of the Scrutiny Committee Councillor Dale could have called in the decision or voted against it at pre-scrutiny- she did neither.

Kind Regards

David Bawn County Councillor Morpeth North"

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

My personal consultation response to the Northern Trans Pennine Express consultation

Following are my responses to the Northern TPE consultation as now ongoing.
I live at Prudhoe a station with a 30 minute frequency service on the Newcastle Carlisle Tyne Valley railway line.
TO1: What are your views on increasing below-average fares over time to levels typical on the rest of the network in order to improve the frequency, capacity and quality of local services? Do you have any evidence to support your views?
This is a good idea so long as fares are comparable to neighbouring bus services and road tax is increased in line with the environmental damage road transport causes. In our case the Tyne Valley line faces intense competition from Go North East X84 and 10 routes. At present the railway is fare competitive but uses dated uncomfortable trains with no Wifi. Fares increases are only acceptable if the line is modernised with for instance a service comparable to that of ELECTRIC Class 350 Trans Pennine trains. If you raise the fares and continue to provide hand me down trains, the passengers will walk. Twice in the life of the nationalised British Railways, a totally new fleet of trains was delivered, in 1958 and 1987-88. So far 17 years of privatisation has delivered no improved rolling stock at all.

TO2: What are your views on giving priority to improving the quality of the Northern rolling stock at the expense of some reduction in lightly used services (e.g. fewer calls at low-use stations)? Do you have any evidence to support your views?
This sounds good but I struggle to see how it will be accomplished. Any new tranche of rolling stock is a major investment. The amount of money saved by "fewer calls at low-use stations)? " is small beer compared to the costs, There are ways to reduce cost in the rail industry. The bringing in house to Network Rail of all maintenance work would be one example. The abolition of the train leasing companies would remove another huge tranche of spend. It is laughable that a Pacer which is a 1980s Leyland bus on rails costs so much to lease. It owes nothing to anyone and is fully depreciated.

TO3: What are your views on allowing some reduction in the hours ticket offices are open and staffed if this is accompanied by the ability for passengers to have widespread access to ticket buying opportunities (e.g. through new and improved approaches such as smart ticketing, increased advance purchase ticketing or via mobile phones), adequate measures to ensure vulnerable passengers are not disadvantaged and more effective customer service by both station and on-train staff? Do you have any evidence to support your views?
Personally I don't mind as much cost saving as possible through demanning of stations. Purely dedicated ticket office staff are unnecessary as the example of London Underground shows. Staff can be redeployed onto platforms and to advise on the use of machines and internet options. In some circumstances a staff presence could be retained or even reinstated through multi function staff who may for instance also be representing a Community Rail Partnership or running a kiosk sellings teas and coffees. The principle of corner shop PayPoints is a good parallel. If Hexham station was demanned and some of the money saved was passed to the CRP it would be interesting to see if it could deliver the same service for less?

COM1: How can local communities, local businesses and other organisations be further stimulated to play an active part in the running of Northern and TPE rail services, including at stations?
Only by the franchise holder having a dedicated team to expand these links. It is all very well suggesting this idea, but transport is in large measure a professional activity and a business, neither of those easily thrive with amateur volunteers. Staff are required on the ground who can develop volunteer and community skills. In the Tyne Valley there has been some achievements with this. For instance websites like and its facebook . Same exist for the Community Rail Partnership. These are all high maintenance activities and to be really effective, few will be totally voluntary efforts. Will the new franchise holder be empowering organisations to run and develop relevant websites and print?

COM2: What opportunities are there for Community Rail Partnerships to expand their role and range of activities?
Dealt with above however I understand that the East Coast franchise has statements about support which I welcome to laterally connected partnerships. Our CRP functions on a shoe string, one officer for one/two days a week and the volunteers. He is the only person in the entire rail industry whose only job is to develop the BUSINESS of the Tyne Valley railway line. How does that work? How does a 60 mile double track railway line thrive with one person for business development? The answer is because a lot of other people have it as part of their work but if you really want a business to grow, you have to invest in staff time to do that.

TPF1: Are you aware of any proposals for third-party funded changes not already indicated? Please provide details.
I am aware of a growing lack of money. It is said the NELEP will provide solutions. I believe it employs 3 people and its chief executive has left for a new job in banking? I sense a tense circle. It is now acknowledged that the previous Northern franchise was let as a standstill but growth that shows no sign of abating took place. Yet the new franchise is expected to achieve growth with a lower bid. Difficult to reckon with.  People really want to use trains. The success of TPE shows this. We in practice live on a Trans Pennine route. Perhaps our line should go to that franchise? We already have through trains to Glasgow which we don't want to lose. If TPE can make a great success of Manchester Airport Glasgow/Edinburgh through as much empty moor as our line, then  Teeside-Wearside, Tyneside, Carlisle, Dumfries, Kilmarnock Glasgow is no less of a corridor. Our line has been identified in the Trans Europe network? Where is the investment in electric trains? EU money could accomplish much of this.

FID1: What factors may impact on demand for travel on the new Northern and TPE franchises? Please provide evidence.
Look at the Tyne Valley timetable. 
eastbound into Newcastle no arrivals between 0655 the first and 0807 the second. Then 0827, 0900, 0928. The first five.
westbound from Hexham, the first train is 0717, the next is 0858, how does that help commuters?
For comparison eastbound into Newcastle in 1989 the first seven arrivals were 0640 0724 0811 0831 0849 0858 0940 from Hexham or west therefore. A loss of two morning peak trains since 1989.
So in this growth cycle, the service in the peak has actually got worse since privatisation and this on a double track cross country line. We need a franchise that plugs these gaps and runs a 30 minute interval service from service start to 1900 in the evening, then hourly to 2300. We are not a branch line but a busy commuter route for a third of the run to Hexham and the only rail crossing east west across Britain for a 100 miles north or south. We're a strategic route as is shown every year when the East Coast weekend service is timetabled down our line. That uses a third train an hour path which is why John Stevenson, the Carlisle Tory MP's call for an express and a stopper service from Carlisle east is completely achievable. The tracks and timetable could deliver it, we need the trains and the committment.
However even all that is on a line where the speed limit is generally between 50-60mph. If this line was electrified and substantial lengths improved to 100mph running, and given the acceleration profile of a class 350, a complete seachange in public transport in this corridor is achievable. I understand Nexus and Northern are considering an extension of wires to the Gateshead Metrocentre on our line. This I fully support as a first step to electrifying the whole route and doing away with all the 19th century signalling infrastructure which still works here. Does the DfT understand that late 19th century signalboxes and equipment are what operate the Tyne Valley Line on a day to day basis?
If the Metrocentre Morpeth trains go electric as I hope they will, this should be a first step to a connected up Northumberland strategy in which trains on the re-opened Ashington Blyth and Tyne do not turn around at Newcastle Central station with all those issues but speed on to various locations in the Tyne Valley.

DTD1: What are your proposals for providing passengers better and safer access to different modes of transport at stations (including bus, tram, cycling and walking?)
Integrated transport is essential. A Quality Transport Contract for the North East is what is needed not just a Quality Bus Contract as Nexus is currently studying. Our local bus company does everything possible not to connect with trains. The new Prudhoe Interchange which I successfully campaigned for with others in 2007 paid for by the DfT has worked very well. Traffic figures have soared, but it is with car/train change. The bus services consistently fail to connect, there is no through ticketing, and I regularly observe the resultant frustration.
We also have an issue outlined here . Since the early 1970s an effective bus/rail interworked service linking rail to Hadrian's Wall has existed. In the last five years what was an exemplar operation has been stripped down and minimalised. Visitor numbers to the world heritage site that is Hadrian's Wall have fallen. And that they have done steadily not just in the recession. There is no One North East, no Hadrian's Wall Trust  to do the overseas promotion that is needed.
However there is a station sat on top of the wall at one of its most exciting central locations. This is Gilsland closed in 1967 and on the boundary of Cumbria and Northumberland. The two MPs want it open, the local parish and county councillors want it open. A properly resourced study by transport planners has demonstrated that allowing for LOCAL and TOURIST use re-opening this station will wash its face. We want a new franchise to commit to a fully costed priced option integrated into the GRIP process to develop this node.

OTH1: Do you have any other views on the future of the Northern and TPE franchises that you would like to set out?
The new franchise should require as an early step the provision of free on board Wifi. If this is not done many people of a younger generation will choose buses even if the journey is longer.
Over the last decade I have seen MANY instances of the bad results that follow through a lack of local rail management, very visible and accessible and based in the North East. This to handle day by day instances of trouble and to develop strategy.
I should be able to travel direct by train from Prudhoe to the two 1948 North East New Towns called Peterlee and Washington, Future Rail North East from Regional Railways North East by British Rail identified in 1993 the need and achievability to re-open these. One is on the Durham coast line our trains run on. The other is on the "Leamside" line which was lifted last year. You cannot even find "Future rail north east" 1993 on Google or Yahoo but I have the report placed in the National Railway Museum Forsythe Collection so I know how much this ground has been repeated over and over again.
I worry that the efforts myself and others go to to react to these consultations are all a complete waste of time. A sop. I shall be fascinated to measure the end outcome against my aspirations as outlined here and see if there is any connectivity.
Yours sincerely
Robert Forsythe