Britain’s rail network is full. Well that’s what we’re often told. The justification for major rail projects, like HS2, is that it will free up paths on already crowded main lines. To meet the rise in predicted demand for rail travel in the coming decades, we need more capacity than any series of smaller improvement programmes can deliver.
Alliance Rail Holdings, which is owned by Arriva, aspires to operate new open access services on both the East Coast and West Coast main lines. On the East Coast this would involve the introduction of Pendolinos on services to Edinburgh and Class 801s on routes to Cleethorpes and Bradford. In both cases, Network Rail concluded that there was sufficient capacity for an open access operator to compete directly with franchised services, although the application for the West Coast has since been rejected by the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR).
ORR decided on balance that the revenue the service would create wasn’t sufficient to justify its impact on the franchise operator. Once an open access operator is licensed to call at a major station en route it qualifies for a share of the revenue generated at that station.
Small can be beautiful
Nevertheless the general consensus is that open access is a good thing. Although the government is confident that its franchise model is the best solution for passengers and taxpayers, it says it is broadly supportive of the competition that open access operators create. The quality of service is also often highlighted. In a customer survey published by consumer group Which? in February open access operators, Grand Central and First Hull Trains, took the top two spots. Grand Central’s managing director Richard McClean said the results showed that ‘small can be beautiful’. The operator employs just 130 people.
‘As an open access operator, we provide a much needed direct service to communities not previously well served by rail,’ said McClean.
‘This allows us to not only meet the specific needs of those communities, but to also be part of them by supporting local charities and community initiatives across Yorkshire and the North East.’
This month, MTR launched its new open access service in Sweden between Gothenburg and Stockholm, putting itself in direct competition with the country’s state-owned rail operator. MTR will operate a fleet of brand new trains from Swiss manufacturer Stadler. The service has been made possible by the Swedish government’s decision in 2010 to open up the long-distance rail market to private operators.
There are other open access services that have been developed over the past few years including GO-OP, a co- operative, which hopes to eventually begin running a main line rail service between Westbury and Birmingham Moor Street.
The argument runs that having more open access operators drives down ticket prices, boosts revenues and improves service quality.
Managing director of Alliance Rail Holdings Ian Yeowart, who established Grand Central in 1997, believes it’s time the argument surrounding open access was turned around. How can it benefit the UK rail network, not how will it impact on franchised services.
Competition is king
Says Ian, ‘I think the first thing to do is look at the success of open access where it’s operated on the East Coast Main Line. It’s been there since 1989 and every application that’s made gets doom and gloom from the DfT and from other operators and yet the reality and the evidence is that it’s been nothing other than an unqualified success.
‘Journeys are up, stations that have been poorly served for many years, including in BR’s time, now see significant patronage on the routes to London and probably more importantly you’re getting some real competition…’
Asked about its position on the role of open access operators, the DfT tried to walk a tightrope of diplomacy.
In a statement the department said, ‘The government is supportive of the benefits that open access can bring through competition in the rail market whilst being mindful of the impacts that open access can have on franchised operators and in turn the value to the taxpayer.
‘In parallel, this government has a clear programme of franchising that places the needs of passengers at the heart of the railway. We believe we have established a stable market and a competitive industry that is delivering for passengers and taxpayers.’
‘Competition is king’ said Ian, who confirmed that the company was in the process of disputing the ORR’s decision to block the open access operator from running trains on the West Coast Main Line.
‘Open access has proven to be generative, it grows the market significantly, it offers passengers choice because that’s the only weapon they have. It’s either choice or don’t travel. They have no other weapon.’
As discussion rages about the future of franchising, it could well be important that the constructive role open access operators have played in expanding services and improving the railway is not overlooked.