Picking up from part one of Behind the Liveries, Dave Songer shines a light on 10 more train operating companies that make up the UK network. From overnight sleepers that travel through some of the most sparsely populated areas of the country, to commuter services that provide London with the workforce it demands, the wholly- and jointly-owned operators are just as diverse as the people they serve.
ScotRail: Awarded in April 2015 to Abellio by Scottish government department, Transport Scotland, the ScotRail franchise was previously run by First Group, the group that was at the time also responsible for the cross-country Caledonian Sleeper service. Abellio has the keys to the 353-station network, which also serves parts of Cumbria and Northumberland, until at least 2025 and represents, at £7bn over 10 years, the single-biggest contract ever let by Scottish ministers. The deal hinges on an agreement drawn up by Transport Scotland – designed to give the best deal to the taxpayer and the train’s passengers – including at least 100 apprenticeships, protected pensions and the guarantee of no compulsory redundancies.
Progress has been bumpy for Abellio’s first two years at the helm of Scotland’s rail network. Within a year of taking control, the Dutch company’s punctuality dipped to 86 percent, bringing with it fines of just under £500,000 from the Scottish government. Abellio has thus far failed to improve upon those National Rail Passenger Survey (NRPS) punctuality figures (published quarterly by independent watchdog Transport Focus) but has improved overall satisfaction in the same survey, rising by one place to eighteenth since autumn 2015.
Earlier this month, the train operating company (TOC) unveiled plans to roll-out superfast 300Mbs broadband across its network, teaming up with Cisco to replace the currently slow speeds that are common across the entire UK network. According to Cisco, the system has been tested on a closed track and will be piloted across the network until 2018.
Caledonian Sleeper: Covering swathes of Scotland and connecting the far norths of Fort William, Inverness and Aberdeen with London Euston, the overnight service came under new ownership after First lost the Scotrail and Caledonian Sleeper franchises in April 2015 to Serco. The twice-daily service was named in Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2016 as the best overnight rail experience in the world, coming just ahead of Moscow to Beijing's sleeper service, Trans-Mongolian.
Though not listed in either NRPS or the Which? best TOC survey results, Caledonian Sleeper does feature in Network Rail’s Public Performance Measure (PPM) (an average calculated from the previous year), in which it posted a significant increase in performance between 2016/17 and 2017/18, rising by around 11 percent from a below average 86.3 percent to 97.6. The national average is currently 90.1 percent.
Serco has been busy promoting the upcoming releases of its new fleet of trains that will enter service by spring 2018. Backed up with a custom website that shows off its en suite cabins, the first of the 75 CAF-built carriages arrived in late-August at its Czech Republic test facility, followed by a fresh round of UK at their eventual Glasgow home. £60m of the total £100m investment in the trains is being provided by the Scottish government.
Virgin Trains: Also serving stations north of The Border, Virgin Trains operates on the 700-mile West Coast Main Line (WCML) – one of Europe’s busiest mixed-traffic routes – and has done since 1997. The franchise agreement for the route that connects London and Scotland with the North West and the West Midlands is due to run until March 2019.
Virgin Trains operates a variety of electric multiple train that uses Fiat Ferroviaria technology enabling it to tilt, consequently making it capable of speeds up to 140mph. The Alstom-built Class 3090 Pendolino entered service in 2002 and number 57 units in total. Now 15 years old, the Pendolino fleets are currently undergoing refurbishment that will bring them back to their former glory, fitting them out with a colour scheme that uses Virgin Trains modern-day ‘flowing silk’ livery.
The 20-year old, wholly-owned franchise carried record numbers of passengers last year, transporting more than 1.7m people between Liverpool and London – an 11 percent increase. In further good news for the WCML operator, Virgin Trains posted the joint second-best score of the operators included in this feature, with only Merseyrail coming higher. Also showed in a good light in the Which? best TOC survey, Richard Branson’s iconic brand came fourth with an average score of 69%.
Virgin Train East Coast: Formerly a line that was operated by the UK government after original operators National Express East Coast had its financial support withdrawn by the Department for Transport (DfT), East Coast Main Line (ECML) trains are branded with Virgin colours despite the fact that it controls only 10 percent of it. Stagecoach owns the remaining 90 percent.
The DfT-formed company, Directly Operated Railways, was switched to private ownership in March 2015, a move that proved unpopular with many because the deal represented what they saw as something of a success story for UK plc, earning the government more than £1bn over the course of the five years it ran the line. The ECML is around half the total distance of the WCML at just under 400 miles, and is a key route for freight traffic, as well as passenger.
Similar to Virgin’s West Coast franchise, East Coast will be making big changes to its fleet of trains. Unlike West Coast, however, the jointly-run network will introduce brand-new rolling stock that will be built by Hitachi Rail Europe (HRE) – Azuma, which means east in Japanese where the parent company of HRE is based. Despite being under largely different ownership, the East Coast arm of the Virgin brand has near-identical satisfaction figures in NRPS and Which?, but fares around four percent worse off than West Coast in Network Rail PPM figures.
The company came into the news in the second half of September with the introduction of a system that makes use of unclaimed first class seats. Starting from £5 for each seat, passengers can enter the running for premium journeys – which include free food and drink, Wi-Fi and a reclining leather seats with more legroom – by bidding for an upgrade using a smartphone app shortly before the train departs.
Merseyrail: Another group-owned franchise, Merseyrail is split down the middle by Abellio and Serco, the latter’s only other involvement in the network featured in Behind the Liveries. As the company name suggests, the network has a big presence in Merseyside, connecting the region with north west Cheshire and the city of Liverpool. Calling at 67 stations, including Southport and Bootle, on a 75-mile line, the current owners of the line took over the 25-year contract from Arriva Trains Merseyside in 2003, after it teamed up with Serco.
Currently the best performing TOC when measured against NRPS, Which? and Network Rail PPM, the latter of which is five percent above the 90 percent national average. 94 percent punctuality goes some way to explaining the positive opinion of Merseyrail, but the company performed less well on the subject of how it deals with delays – the 64 percent satisfaction figure puts the company sixth in the overall standings behind TOCs including CrossCountry and Virgin Trains. Merseyrail is currently building a new station between Liverpool and Ormskirk in Lancashire, Maghull North, which is due to open in May 2018.
South Western Railway: The newest kid on the block, South Western Railway in August 2017 took over the network that serves stations in English counties including Surrey, London, Hampshire and Dorset from the similarly named South West Trains franchise. That was operated exclusively by Stagecoach Group, but today the franchise is divided up between First Group (70%) and MTR Corporation (30%), the latter of which was itself in a joint-partnership with Chinese rail company, Guangshen Railway Company. The franchise’s reach also extends to the Isle of Wight’s only train line, The Island Line, which opened in 1864.
Having only been in charge of the contract for one month at time of writing, no official figures relating to the TOCs overall performance are currently available. A glance at previous incumbent South West Train’s Which? and NRPS figures, however, shows big improvements are needed if South Western Railway is to break into the top half of UK operators. In the tables, the TOC is languishing in nineteenth position of Which?’s survey and twentieth in NRPS’s latest stats.
Greater Anglia and TfL Rail: The last of this feature’s jointly-owned TOCs, Greater Anglia, which also runs the East Anglia Franchise, connects Cambridgeshire, Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk with London and parts of Hertfordshire – a 170-station network. Formerly named Abellio Greater Anglia, the franchise changed its name when there was a change in the ownership structure in March 2017; Japanese company, Mitsui, was awarded 40 percent of the franchise after the DfT told Abellio that external help was a prerequisite if it wanted to continue running it.
The Shenfield to London Liverpool Street section of the network that was previously operated by Abellio Greater Anglia was transferred to TfL Rail, the owners of which (London Overground) will eventually be subsumed into Crossrail when that begins operations from December 2018.
The East Anglia region will receive a new 75-mile train line between Cambridge and Oxford that will mean passengers no longer have to take the current 120-mile detour to get to London. Planned for completion by 2030, the line was dealt a blow in 2017 when it was announced that – due to budgetary constraints – it would no longer be electrified. That means that, like the Swansea and Cardiff line before it, which also has had electrification plans reversed, journeys on the line will still need to be at least part-powered by diesel engines. Making those journeys in the future, Greater Anglia began testing the new Bombardier Aventra trains will replace all of its fleet of trains by 2020.
c2c: The Essex and London train service was bought by current owner, Trenitalia, in February 2017 after the previous operator of the network, National Express, sold it to the Italian company. One of the smallest networks in UK, with just 28 stations on a 79-mile line, the commuter network was judged in Network Rail’s latest PPM figures to be the most punctual in the UK, with 96.3 percent of all services arriving on time. The TOC has performed consistently over the last two years, according to the NRPS, achieving the same 89 percent satisfaction in 2015 and 2017.
In reaction to calls from c2c commuters who hold part-time contracts, who lose out financially owing to the more erratic hours they work, the TOC unveiled plans that could save affected passengers up to £135 annually. The Flex-Season ticket, which is loaded onto c2c’s traveller smartcard, smart, offers day return tickets that are five percent cheaper than standard tickets, giving a further five percent off during off-peak travel.
East Midlands: Propping up this week’s feature is East Midland trains, the Stagecoach Group-owned franchise that has run the nearly 1,000-mile network since 2007 and will continue to do so until 2019. Stretching as far as Yorkshire and the Humber, the TOC was in the top half of both Which?’s best train companies and Network Rail’s PPM tables, with 61 percent and 92.4 percent, respectively. Owners Stagecoach Group, also uses its East Midlands rolling stock as part of its Megatrain offering, a lower-cost option that links destinations including London, Derby and Nottingham.
Another casualty of financial restrictions that called time on any hope of rail electrification, the region’s businesses have lobbied the Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling, to proceed with the £1bn of funding needed to make electrification possible. There are serious concerns in some corners that failure to do so would restrict the area’s prospects for growth. Minster Grayling said the bi-mode trains that would run on the network, which are powered by diesel and electricity, would mean fewer delays, due to the fact that “disruptive electrification works” would no longer be needed.
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