Government rail plans ‘spin, not substance’, say Sheffield business leaders

Peter Kennan, from Sheffield Chamber of Commerce
Peter Kennan, from Sheffield Chamber of Commerce
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Business bosses in Sheffield have expressed disappointment at planned changes to northern rail services - labelling Government proposals as ‘spin, not substance’.

Sheffield Chamber of Commerce said it is concerned about the proposals put forward for the running of the Northern Rail and Trans-Pennine Express franchises.

It said faster and more frequent train services are needed across the region - and not enough are currently planned to meet demand.

Transport Forum chairman Peter Kennan said plans to replace ageing Pacer trains do not make clear what will replace them, while more Sheffield services are needed.

He said “We are still some way from knowing who will take over two key rail franchises – Northern Rail and Trans-Pennine Express – that serve Sheffield. What we do know however is who is on the shortlist for each franchise and we have now seen the Invitation to Tender for each.

“Generally the forum’s reaction is one of disappointment. Patrick McLoughlin MP has grabbed the headlines with a Ministerial Direction to the Civil Service to ensure that the successful Northern Rail franchise bidder eliminate the much-maligned Pacer trains by 2020 with ‘new build diesel vehicles’.

“But whether that means brand new trains, or electric-to-diesel conversions using existing stock, is left uncertain.

“Mr McLoughlin’s vision of a Northern Powerhouse cannot be delivered by the elimination of Pacers alone – this must be through fast trains at regular intervals connecting major cities.

“Equally, the new franchise specifies 46 trains per weekday from Sheffield to Leeds via Barnsley and nothing direct from Sheffield to Leeds.

“There appears to be no requirement to speed up the Leeds via Barnsley ‘Express’ service, which takes longer than an hour.

“This leaves the focus on local services and not the Inter-City travel required to deliver the Northern Powerhouse vision.

“There is a requirement on Northern Rail to increase the number of seats between 2017 and 2019 into and out of Sheffield by around 25 per cent during the peak and high peak travel times. This is, of course, welcome but will not be enough to keep up with demand – we’re already well on the path to soaking that capacity up.

“After a decade of Northern Rail ‘making do and mending’, it is hugely disappointing to find a train plan specified that is little different from today’s.

“On Trans-Pennine Express, we still have a specified hourly service from Cleethorpes to Manchester Airport via Doncaster and Sheffield. Elsewhere, the core Sheffield to Manchester Piccadilly sector is pretty much what we have now – again, disappointing as the key requirement to connect with early departures and late arrivals at Manchester Airport is still not there.

“There is no commitment to a 24/7 service which is clearly what airport connections need.

“On a more positive note there is a requirement to step up capacity by 2018, with an increase in the number of carriages, plus a 40 to 50 per cent seat capacity increase in the full morning and evening peaks.

“It is a pity we have to wait four years for this.

“Overall, we feel there has been spin but little substance. The chamber will be lobbying and meeting all bidders before the tenders have to be submitted and hopefully they will have ideas to deliver what the public officials and politicians have so far failed to - a vision of an excellent train service for commuting and business between key regional centres.”

When the plans were announced last week, transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin said: “This is great news for passengers across the north, who will finally get a rail service that matches up to the booming economy in this region. That means more seats, more services and a brand new fleet of modern trains. Unlike the last Northern franchise in 2004, which included limited plans to invest in services or meet demand, this deal will maintain investment and grow to fit the needs of passengers for years to come.

“Together with the £1 billion investment we are making to improve the region’s railways and our plans to link east and west through HS3, our railways are making the region an economic powerhouse.”