Posted 8th July 2019 | 9 Comments

Virgin says British franchise market ‘becoming uninvestable’

New HS2 report insists project is essential

MEMBERS of the House of Commons have been debating the progress of HS2, after the Conservative MP for South Northamptonshire Andrea Leadsom moved a motion in Westminster Hall calling for a rethink. She said: ‘Those of us who expressed concerns about HS2 even while it was still in consultation were dismissed by others as nimbys and told that we were flat wrong about the wider benefits that HS2 would bring to the north. I was then and continue to be willing to be proved wrong, but with the delay to the notice to proceed, growing concerns about the project’s spiralling costs, ongoing engineering and design difficulties and, even now, the rumours that the line past Birmingham might never be built, it is high time for the project to be thoroughly reviewed to ensure that it will actually deliver for taxpayers.’ HS2 minister Nusrat Ghani replied: ‘The business case is clearly solid: there is one budget and one timetable—HS2 will continue on track. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire asked me to confirm at the Dispatch Box what the budget and the timetable are. I stand here to state confidently that the budget is £55.7 billion and that the timetable is 2026 ​and 2033.’ Meanwhile, the High Speed Rail Industry Leaders group has published a new report today, entitled ‘Why Britain needs high speed rail’. HSRIL said: ‘The report shows that completing HS2 is essential for smashing the UK’s north-south divide, and outlines how the project will deliver improved rail services to far more towns and cities than is generally realised. The report sets out a number of key findings that all point towards one inescapable conclusion: that HS2 must be delivered in full. Without completing HS2, the north-south divide will remain and worsen.’

Track worker killed by train was ‘probably fatigued’

The Rail Accident Investigation Branch says a track worker who was killed at Stoats Nest Junction near Purley on 6 November was probably fatigued and should have been supported by a possession support assistant who was absent from duty. The RAIB said: ‘The worker had placed equipment on the track as part of the arrangements for the protection of an engineering possession. Having placed the protection equipment, the track worker then walked along the track until he reached the end of the protected area, and continued walking with his back to rail traffic on an open line. Underlying factors associated with the accident were the nature of the work which exposed the track worker to risk while he was putting out protection for the possession, that the labour supplier’s management processes had not sufficiently identified and addressed the risk of fatigue among zero hours contracted staff and that the labour supplier’s management processes had neither identified nor prevented staff absenting themselves from work without being detected.’ The RAIB has made two recommendations, one to Network Rail and the other to the man’s employer, Vital Human Resources Ltd. The RAIB says NR should ‘improve the way its labour suppliers manage the risks associated with the use of workers on zero-hours contracts’ and that VHR Ltd should ‘commission an independent review of the actions it has taken following the accident at Stoats Nest Junction to assess their effectiveness in detecting and preventing the type of behaviour seen in the accident, and reduce the risks from fatigue’.

Network Rail to invest £70m in new track safety initiative

A SAFETY taskforce has been launched by Network Rail in the wake of the deaths of two track workers in south Wales last week. It will be supported by a new £70 million fund. Two track safety improvement notices have been served on Network Rail by the ORR recently. Group safety, technical and engineering director Martin Frobisher said: ‘We will make it safer to work on or near the railway than it is today. Everyone should expect to get home safe, every day, and while our track record has been good and improving, there are still too many close-calls and that will be addressed. We have been working with the ORR and our trade unions for many months to help us make working on the railway safer. Like our regulator, we want to see speedier progress. The tragic deaths in Wales last week are a stark reminder to us all that more needs to be done. We will rise to that challenge, as losing more of our railway family is not something we can tolerate.’ TSSA general secretary Manuel Cortes said: ‘Our union of course welcomes any step that will make our members and our railways safer. The tragedy is that it has taken the deaths of two men to make this taskforce happen. However, I’ve written to Andrew Haines making it clear our union has, for the past two years, been seeking to address the planning and delivery of safe working. There also needs to be an explanation as to why Network Rail failed to act on recent warnings from the RAIB that there were “too many near misses in which railway workers have had to jump for their lives.”’

Branson says rail franchising is a ‘real mess’

VIRGIN founder Sir Richard Branson has described rail franchising as a ‘real mess’ and ‘too constrictive’. In a BBC interview, he said ‘it's very difficult to be entrepreneurial’. Patrick McCall, a senior partner in Virgin Group, had said earlier this week that ‘unfortunately the UK is fast-becoming uninvestable from a rail franchise perspective, because of the UK government’s decision to load unacceptable risk on to bidders’. Virgin’s bid for the next West Coast franchise, in partnership with Stagecoach and SNCF, was disqualified in April because it attempted to reduce the risks associated with funding pensions. Virgin is now considering opportunities offered by high speed lines in Spain, which will allow open access competition for the state-owned operator Renfe in December 2020. Meanwhile, although Virgin is set to surrender the West Coast intercity franchise by next March at the latest, it has applied for a licence to run an open-access service between London and Liverpool from 2021. The DfT, responding to Sir Richard’s remarks, said: ‘We are sorry to see Virgin leave the UK rail industry having failed to put forward a compliant bid. Other companies have done so and the remaining bidders in current competitions clearly see an ability to be entrepreneurial on the railways. The recent winning bid on the East Midlands franchise accepted the pensions terms and will deliver significant benefits for passengers.’

No progress in Underground pay talks

PAY talks between London Underground and the RMT have broken up after their eighth day, but the RMT said there had been no ‘meaningful offer’. The union, which has 10,000 members on the Underground, is now stepping up its preparations for a strike ballot.

Shuttle traffic falls back amid ‘political uncertainty’

EUROTUNNEL said truck traffic in June was down 14 per cent compared with June 2018, and that this was ‘mainly due to the impact of weakness in the automotive sector, which has been slow to restart after spring shutdowns’. Passenger traffic was also slightly lower than it was a year ago, down by 2 per cent. Eurotunnel said the UK market was ‘politically uncertain’.

New £64m railway research centre for Leeds

A NEW advanced railway research centre planned for Leeds has been given the green light. £11 million of the funding needed is coming from the government, £40 million from the University of Leeds and £13 million from the Leeds City Region Local Enterprise Partnership Growth Deal. It will be known as the University of Leeds Institute for High Speed Rail and System Integration, and is set to ‘revolutionise the way new railway systems are invented, developed and brought into service’, according to its founders. It will also form part of wider plans to make Leeds a UK railway engineering centre.

Are you sitting comfortably?

SEATS on trains of the future will be designed with a more scientific approach to comfort, according to the RSSB. It has unveiled the results of research which has produced a ‘comfort rating scale’, and designers and specifiers are now being encouraged to use these findings when seats are installed in new trains or replaced in refurbished ones. The RSSB said FirstGroup had been the first operator to use ‘elements’ of this new comfort scale and methodology in its specification of new trains. The researchers considered the dimensions of the seat and its environment including legroom, accessories, compression, hardness and attractiveness, related to the likely length of journeys. This research has led to a ‘seat comfort specification’ for manufacturers with a set of minimum requirements, allowing comfort to be properly considered as an essential feature as well as crashworthiness and fire safety.

Reader Comments:

Views expressed in submitted comments are that of the author, and not necessarily shared by Railnews.

  • david c smith, Bletchley

    Mr Cortes , like many others takes the view that the only form of public ownership is Nationalisation. Various kinds of cooperatives, though, could be candidates for those parts of rail operations that are "natural monopolies", such as most local and commuter.

    One problem with nationalisation , for the railways and more generally , is the idea of "parliametary accountability", something that experience since 1945 showed just doesn't work in practice, One reason is that BR was far too big for parliament to effectively oversee; accountability that is not achievable through competition needs to be on a more local level of democracy.

  • jak jaye, surrey

    Unions arent' in it to bring the country to its knees,we have enough MPs to do that!

  • Steve Alston, Crewe

    Manuel Cortes is right to an extent. Private businesses do not join our industry just to promote their name, they are primarily interested in cold, hard cash and how any commenters on here manage to disagree with his most basic and obvious of statements is quite beyond me.

    There are some in society who seem incapable of agreeing with anything a union says or does, even when that statement is absolutely correct.

  • Neil Palmer, Waterloo

    What Manuel Cortes and others constantly ignore is the fact the railways are basically nationalised already.

    Infrasructure - Network Rail. Done, no arguments there.

    TOCs - basically specified down to the timetable by the DfT/government under the guise of franchising so the government can point a finger at the TOCs when something goes badly wrong and blame them. Does the average punter care if the government pays the employees salaries directly or if a TOC does?

    And of course they want to make a profit. Does Cortes work for nothing?

    Everyone knows the real reason unions keep pushing their political agenda for nationalisation is they long for the good old days of national rail strikes and the ability to bring the country to its knees.
    If the TSSA, ASLEF & RMT employees took a good historical look at their pay rates and increases pre & post "privatization" I'm sure many of them would question that argument.
    Union Dues should be for the direct benefit of members (negotiating pay & work/safety concerns - oh and let them donate to charitable causes). Unions should be prohibited from using union dues to fight political/ideological battles that many of their members disagree with.

  • Jez Milton, Manchester

    VWC could have sought expert advice on likely exposure, and decided to bid as per DfT requirements. The suspicion has to be that after absurdly overbidding for IC East Coast, no one at Stagecoach/VT was ready to take on any risk at all for ICWC, even though it has lined pockets for the last 22 years.

  • Neil Palmer, Waterloo

    You: I'd like a mortgage please
    Bank: Sure, sign here
    You: What will my total payments be over the term of the mortgage?
    Bank: We'll tell you that in a few years after e figure it out, just sign here.
    You: Duh, OK.
    If that's you the DfT has a rail franchise for you to bid on.

  • Andrew Gwilt, Benfleet Essex

    Virgin/Stagecoach should of departed from franchising the West Coast franchise and to allow another train operator or bidder to take over the West Coast franchise. Or perhaps the government should take over just like they took over the East Coast franchise back in June last year (24th June 2018).

  • Jez Milton, Manchester

    VT were happy to rake in the profits on the ICWC franchise for many years, including the last few, but ask them to bear some pension risk, and the Branson rattle is thrown out...

  • david c smith, Bletchley

    It seems some other countries, additionally to Spain are looking to make intercity / longer distance train service , where effective on- rail, on- going competition is feasible, into a fully commercial operation , with the more local / commuter operations to be accountable as local public sector bodies , whether as local concessions , franchises, etc.

    Virgin at least seem to have the "nous" to see the current state controlled private monopoly setup as unsustainable, as a "one size fits all" system.