ABFLY have cautiously welcomed the government’s ‘Stakeholder briefing document’ for the West Midlands franchise competition, which includes a raft of improvements to the Abbey Line, but there is disappointment in one key area.

The document summarises the responses to the consultation that was carried out between December 2015 and March 2016, and also provides a description of what has been included in the Invitation to Tender (ITT) for the new franchise which is scheduled to begin in October 2017.

For the Abbey Line, the ITT will include several committed improvements which ABFLY have campaigned for:

  • Smart ticketing – bidders will be required to develop smart ticketing options for customers travelling on the Abbey Line, though it is unlikely to be Oyster.
  • Ticketing products – bidders will be required to offer products that give customers who travel fewer than five days per week a better value option than buying multiple return journeys, or a weekly season ticket.
  • Community Rail Partnership – significantly increased funding.
  • Sunday service – higher frequency, matching the Monday-Saturday pattern.
  • Passenger Information System – all trains will be required to be fitted with live tracking technology so that real time passenger information can be provided
  • A Service Quality Regime (SQR) on branch lines to improve the presentation and delivery of stations, trains and customer service for passengers. In these areas the operator will be required to meet certain targets for presentation (cleanliness and maintenance) and customer service, with penalties for under-performance.

The ITT also includes several less well-defined suggestions of possible improvements:

  • Revenue Protection – a ticketless travel survey has confirmed ABFLY’s long-held insistence that many passengers are travelling without tickets and bidders will be required to “demonstrate how they will manage ticketless travel on the route”.
  • Improved staff visibility – bidders will have to set out how they will improve staff visibility on trains, in tandem with their strategy for reducing ticketless travel. See also ‘Service Quality Regime’. The government stops short of making the controversial Driver Controlled Operation (DCO) mandatory, most likely because of recent Union troubles caused by such proposals on Southern.
  • Connections – there will be a specific requirement to focus on making connections better between West Midlands Franchise services at Bletchley, Lichfield Trent Valley, Stafford and Watford Junction. This is presumed to include connections between the Abbey Line and main line services.
  • Leaf-fall season – the operator will be required to provide a robust strategy to deliver services during the autumn leaf-fall period in collaboration with Network Rail. They will need to focus on delivering the normal level of service wherever possible, while ensuring that services operate reliably and punctually, meet demand, manage crowding and deliver customer satisfaction.

Balancing all the improvements, it is extremely disappointing that there has been no commitment to introduce a higher frequency, clock-face timetable. ABFLY still maintain that this is the only way to bring about a step-change in the service offering.

The government document states, “Unfortunately this cannot be provided without significant and costly infrastructure work. Usage on the line means the business case is poor for such an expensive scheme so we cannot provide it as part of the franchise specification. Bidders are, however, being asked to look at schemes such as this with local Stakeholders and Network Rail during the franchise.”

ABFLY is seeking more detail on why the business case is poor, in particular the underlying assumptions about current usage of the line, which could be flawed because of the high level of ticketless travel. ABFLY will continue to work with bidders and the local authorities to try and make the case for future investment.

The full government can be downloaded at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/549124/west-midland-stakeholder-briefing-document-and-consultation-response.pdf

If you are interested in joining ABFLY to help us campaign for further improvements, please visit www.abfly.org.uk/join