Last night I was asked to speak about the proposed East Coast Main Line timetable changes at a packed meeting at Berwick Town Hall, organised by Cllr Georgina Hill. Other speakers were Tom Thornburn of RAGES (Rail Action East of Scotland) and Ben Garratt of LNER – who of course got a rough time but we should acknowledge it was good of him to at least be present and see the strength of feeling for himself. Lord Beith was in the audience too and made some excellent points, and Tom Forrester from Anne Marie Trevelyan MP’s office was also present, as were colleagues from ARUG (Alnmouth Rail User Group).
In my own presentation, I spoke about my journey from Morpeth to Berwick earlier that afternoon. There are no direct off-peak services, so I was obliged to go back to Newcastle and change there, returning through Morpeth on a non-stopping train an hour after I first left. The new timetables will replicate this hapless scenario for Morpeth – Alnmouth journeys, making off-peak travel between the two stations impossible. And once at Newcastle, we then find there are 3 trains to Edinburgh within 20 minutes (15:37, 15:45, 15:52). At SENRUG, we accept there is a case for one of these 3 services running from Newcastle to Edinburgh non-stop. But we believe 1 train per hour should do something intelligent for Northumberland and stop at each of Morpeth, Alnmouth, Berwick (and either Reston or Dunbar in Scotland) providing connectivity between these key market towns, as well as direct journeys to London, Birmingham or Manchester. So, SENRUG is asking for 2 off-peak calls each way per day at Morpeth to be retained by LNER, and the TPE services to be re-instated between Newcastle and Edinburgh but calling at Morpeth, Alnmouth, Berwick and one Scottish town, effectively being the semi-fast service. We also argue the new timetable is the ideal opportunity to allocate the paths needed for the Northumberland Line trains between Newcastle and Benton Junction, and more importantly for Berwick, the new local service SENRUG proposes between Newcastle and Berwick which would call at all stations along the route, currently the subject of a Northumberland County Council “Restoring Your Railway” application to DfT.
Much of the discussion was about how the new timetable would require travellers to drive 60 miles or so to Newcastle to pick up a train, and the point at which someone simply decides to drive all the way. It was also pointed out that the LNER services which Berwick will keep under the new proposals will take longer to reach London, so the objective of speeding up journey times just isn’t fulfilled for Northumberland stations. In summary, we don’t think the benefit of a 15 minute reduction in London to Edinburgh journey times justifies the significant disbenefits this new timetable will cause to northern economies, Northumberland in particular.
And here’s another thing: the prosperity and vibrancy of any city depends surely depends on it having good access to and from the hinterlands it serves. In this regard, Tom Thornburn of RAGES gave an astonishing comparison between train services an hour at Stevenage and Dunbar, both about 30 miles from their respective capital cities. You can guess which town comes out better in that particular comparison.
There can be no doubt people in the north will lose their jobs over these new timetables, or at the very least be forced back into the cars, perhaps even obliged to buy another one just to get to work. Whether it’s Morpeth people working at MetroCentre, Alnmouth people working in Morpeth, or Dunbar commuters seeking to get to Edinburgh. The question is, will the rail industry actually listen? Fears that the consultation exercise is just a sham, and that this is the timetable we are going to get anyway, were strongly expressed but sharply denied by Ben Garratt. However, he did say that if the timetable does not go ahead as planned, all the millions of investment Network Rail had put in down the south of the line would be wasted. To which I replied TPE had likewise spent millions buying their new trains (incidentally the same as LNER’s Azuma fleet but in 5-coach versions) so they had enough units to run to Edinburgh as per their original franchise contract with the DfT. This money too would presumably be wasted if these trains are now obliged to stay in the sidings all day with TPE denied permission to run through Northumberland. Don’t forge, anyone else wishing to object to the timetables has until Thursday (5th August) to do so, and SENRUG’s background briefing is available here, and our full response here.