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MMPA Response to Great Western Franchise Consultation

Great Western Franchise Consultation Manager,
Department for Transport
(via e-mail)

To whom it may concern:

I am responding to your Great Western Specification Consultation dated May 2014 on behalf of the Marlow-Maidenhead Passengers’ Association (MMPA). We were founded in 1971 as a rail user group in the Thames Valley working for the benefit of travellers and communities in the area served by the branch railway between Marlow (Wycombe District, Bucks CC) and Maidenhead (Royal Borough of Windsor & Maidenhead). Since summer 2013 we also support rail users at Taplow station (South Bucks District, Bucks CC). The Marlow branch serves a catchment area with an estimated population of around 100,000 people and it is a well-used part of the railway, accounting for around 900,000 passenger journeys annually. Taplow station accounts for around 240,000 passenger journeys annually. We also hold a watching brief for High Wycombe station which was connected to the Marlow Branch until 1970. Finally, we support and assist the Henley Branch Users Group (Henley BUG) and Twyford Village Partnership (TVP) in their overview of the branch line between Twyford and Henley-on-Thames.

The views expressed here were assembled from the 12 person committee elected to represent our members, many of whom have long experience representing passengers on the committee and previous professional roles in the rail or public transport industries. Input was solicited from individual members via our website as well as from community organisations with whom we work in towns and villages served by the Branch. Not all consultation questions fall within our purview, and no response is provided in those cases. Thank-you for the opportunity to provide input into this process.

Susan Morrison
Marlow-Maidenhead Passengers‘ Association


June 2014

Association’s Summary of Priorities

This summary will outline MMPA‘s top concerns and priorities for the specifications of any future Great Western franchise.

  1. Specify a true commitment to diligent revenue protection in order to ensure a franchise that values honest, fare-paying passengers. It’s no secret that many people travel the railway for free. This is certainly true of our Branch even when most people WANT to pay their fare. There are no gateline barriers at our stations. Only Bourne End and Taplow have ticket machines. Some stations have ticket offices open part time. Despite being the Branch’s busiest station, Marlow has neither. Most passengers must rely on guard passing through the train to buy their tickets. Some trains are too crowded for guards to make it through all carriages. Even when guards are present, their machines often don’t work properly and passengers find tickets sold on trains don’t work at gateline barriers, causing embarrassment and inconvenience. Branch passengers are sometimes forced to break journeys in Maidenhead to purchase tickets from the ticket office there and thus miss their advertised connecting service towards either London or Reading. We would welcome investment by the franchise holder in station ticket machines, booking office & on-train staff, proper mobile ticket machines for guards, anything that gives passengers a chance to buy a ticket and be counted. We also welcome the use of smart cards, carnet schemes or other ticketing innovations if this helps passengers pay their fares more easily and efficiently. Whatever means can be used to incentivize the operator to value honest fare-paying passengers as key to the success of the franchise would be beneficial. Capturing all income derived from travel to and from our stations is vital to understanding and protecting its economic health and that of the whole rail network.
  2. Specify a requirement to develop sensible local strategies for railhead parking and station access, allowing rail users to access stations as part of a reasonable fare structure. Fares have been regulated but car park fees have not. Double digit fee increases have occurred and are often implemented with little or no notice. Car parks should also be properly maintained. Any fees charged should be at a rate that doesn’t force travelers to park legally or illegally on nearby streets, creating congestion, hazards and bad will in neighbourhoods near stations. We understand that parking fees could be part of an economic incentive to access the station more sustainably — on foot, by cycle or bus — but they should not be a mechanism for discouraging travel by creating backdoor fare increases when more sustainable alternatives are not supported or integrated. We are not recommending prescriptive mandates but instead would welcome franchisee consideration of parking in the big picture of station access and fares. We would welcome the train operator’s willingness to work cooperatively with local highway authorities and other stakeholders to establish reasonable and sufficient car parking arrangements whilst working to improve access to stations via other more sustainable transport modes. A good example is the planned regeneration of Maidenhead Town Centre as per the Area Action Plan which would improve access and provide more car parking, an absolute necessity with expected increases in passenger numbers associated with electrification and Crossrail. Another example is the work conceived but not completed by FGW and Bucks CC to upgrade the south car park at Taplow station. Twyford Station also suffers from serious parking problems which need to be addressed.
  3. Acknowledgement that staff members at smaller stations serve multiple important purposes. This includes ticket selling, revenue protection, customer information, advice and security, assisting disabled passengers, keeping stations tidy, clearing platforms and applying grit during snow and ice. Station toilets and lifts to provide disabled access are no longer accessible when staff leave for the day. If budget constraints make closing ticket offices inevitable, then significant compensating or replacement investment in technology or alternative solutions must be made to fulfill all those purposes. We understand the need for improvements in railway cost efficiency but cutting staff may not always be the best way to accomplish that. It could in fact be a good example of “penny wise, pound foolish.” We would welcome franchisee willingness to work cooperatively to find cost effective solutions in the best interest of local passengers, communities and the long-term health of the railway.
  4. Ensure franchisee support of Community Rail Partnership efforts. MMPA participates in an informal Working Group including representatives of local authorities, the train operator and Network Rail. The group works to solve problems, seek improvements and promote the railway. If consensus can be reached amongst all the stakeholders, we would like to see this arrangement made more formal as a CRP alliance of Thames Valley Branches and the intervening stations. Franchisee commitment of financial and human resources to this effort is imperative and we would welcome their leadership assistance in making it happen.
  5. We are very concerned about the impact of Crossrail and electrification on the Branch, Taplow and Twyford. We would ask the franchisee to have robust proposals day one for dealing with continuity of service and reliable connectivity during Crossrail and electrification works. A commitment to work cooperatively with all stakeholders to ensure smaller stations and Thames Valley Branches are not forgotten or neglected amongst these enormous infrastructure investment programmes would be welcome.

Consultation Questions in the Franchise Specification Document

  1. Respondents are encouraged to consider whether any additional objectives should be reflected in the franchise specification for the 5 year period from September 2015.
    We agree with the seven stated objectives for the franchise which briefly stated include:
    • Improve passenger experience, subject to value for money & affordability constraints
    • Support economic growth, delivering a balance of commercial & passenger benefits
    • Support capacity enhancement, balancing constraints of affordability & value for money with benefits of the moderisation programme
    • Ensure practical reliability & punctuality during improvement projects
    • Deliver cost effective and efficient services
    • Benchmark & optimize environmental performance
    • Support new & existing Community Rail Partnerships

    The problem will be in establishing exactly where the proper balance should be when objectives collide or conflict with each other. Who decides if passenger experience is improving, if proper balance is occurring etc.? We would like to see a further objective:
    • Franchisee commitment to transparency, communication with stakeholders and establishment of a robust mechanism for seeking stakeholder input to decision-making about cost — value and performance constraints
    CRPs are one option for accomplishing this but only where they actually exist.

  2. Respondents are encouraged to consider and identify any specific local factors that they believe might influence the future level of passenger demand, which should be reflected in the specification for the new franchise.
    Local authorities in our area are producing Local Area Plans which include plans for considerable new homebuilding in the next five years. Since local roads are already seriously congested, a large proportion of any new residents will have to be encouraged to travel by public transport, including rail, for work, school, recreation and shopping.

  3. Respondents are encouraged to highlight interfaces with any other schemes that are likely to be delivered during the next five years, which the operator may need to consider.
    Since many of the Marlow and Henley Branch passengers travel on to/from London, Reading, Oxford and beyond, they will likely face serious disruptions due to planned infrastructure schemes surrounding us. Later evening connectivity to the Branch has already suffered dramatically as Crossrail works have begun between Slough and Maidenhead, causing delays in connecting service from Paddington. Additional concerns include:
    • Continuity of service and connectivity if there is a timing gap between electrification of the main line and Thames Valley branches.
    • Continued availability of peak time fast services between Paddington and Maidenhead/Twyford no matter how it ends up that passengers are split between Crossrail and GW services
    • Continued direct service between Bourne End and Paddington during peak times

    Reasonable alternatives are probably best worked by the franchisee working together with industry partners as long as a specified number of station calls supporting current service levels is guaranteed.

  4. Respondents are invited to identify any changes or reorganisation to the routes served by the GW franchise that they would recommend; and to explain their rationale.
    We support the reconnection of the Marlow Branch to High Wycombe via a possible new light rail scheme. Transport links locally between the Thames Valley/M4 and the M40 corridor are sadly lacking, hindering economic, educational, tourism and recreational opportunities in the area. Apart from the A404, local Thames river road crossings at Cookham & Marlow are single lane, creating serious traffic bottlenecks during peak commuting times and on weekends. Much of the abandoned Wycombe railway, is still in place including a tunnel under the M40.

    We also support the possible re-opening of the passing loop at Cookham which could expand Branch capacity by allowing more frequent than hourly service.

  5. Respondents who wish to promote service changes should clearly identify these in their response to this consultation, as well as any supporting business case or value for money analysis.
    Please see response to question 7.

  6. Respondents are encouraged to bring to our attention research, evidence or publications which they believe should be considered in the development of the franchise specification.
    Local authorities in our area are currently producing Local Plans, many of which include plans for considerable new homebuilding. Royal Borough of Windsor & Maidenhead has produced an Area Action Plan for Maidenhead Town Centre which provides for significant redevelopment around Maidenhead station.

  7. Respondents are invited to propose any changes to the current service pattern which they feel should be considered and to explain their rationale, for example by identifying specific local factors which might influence the future level of passenger demand which they consider should be reflected in the revised specification.
    We would like to see resumption of Sunday service for Taplow Station of at least one train per hour compared to two per hour Monday through Saturday currently. At the moment trains pass through but don’t stop at Taplow on Sundays although about 240,000 journeys are made through there annually during the 6 days service is provided. Further justification for Sunday service includes:
    • Development of a new 66 unit housing complex adjacent to the Taplow Station. After choosing to live right at the station, residents are likely to desire the option for recreational, work or educational travel on Sundays.
    • Visitors to SGI UK HQ at Taplow Court — the visitor centre there is open from 10 to 5 daily, including Sunday
    • Visitors and conferences at Taplow House Hotel, open 7 days per week
    • National Trust property at Cliveden, open and busy on Sundays. Taplow is the most convenient rail station.

  8. Respondents are invited to say whether they value a faster headline journey time, or more intermediate stops, on a particular journey that they make (and identify that journey).
    We believe this is a balance best established by the franchisee with the exception of retaining fast train stops at Reading, Maidenhead and Slough during peak times to help alleviate ongoing capacity problems in the Thames Valley.

  9. Should any elements of the indicative modelled intercity service pattern be mandated, and can it be improved? What should the priority be for intercity services where IEP trains are not planned to operate?
    No response

  10. What do you feel the GW operator’s priorities on the suburban network should be once it is electrified in 2016, e.g. for additional higher capacity, fast commuter services, or improved journey times?
    We believe capacity is likely to continue to present problems for the Thames Valley so should remain a priority. Of course different passengers have different needs but apart from more capacity, all users would expect reliability and punctuality so these should always be a high priority for the franchisee.

  11. RE: service from Bedwyn, Hungerford, Kintbury, to Newbury after electrification.
    The best option for all users would be to electrify at least to Bedwyn but possibly to Bristol via Westbury and Bradford-on-Avon, giving an alternative to mainline when disruptions occur.

  12. Respondents are invited to suggest ways in which Community Rail Partnerships could deliver more of the beneficial outcomes for passengers achieved so far.
    We have long had the aspiration of establishing a Community Rail Partnership for the Thames Valley Branches, their interchange stations and neighboring stations of Taplow and Burnham. We have worked with Local Authorities, community organisations and representatives of the railway to accomplish this goal. Some of the beneficial outcomes we are working towards that would be enhanced by participation in a CRP include:
    • To improve integration of the railway with other modes of transport
    • To encourage sustainable access to stations by bus, cycling and walking
    • To reduce road congestion by encouraging people to use the railway when traveling for work, school, recreation, or shopping
    • To develop a sensible local strategies for railhead parking
    • To promote and develop the railway for the benefit of local residents, commuters, businesses and visitors
    • To build links with local businesses whose customers and employees rely on the railway
    • To ensure train services and stations in our area are safe, secure and accessible to all
    • To support tourism, community events, and economic development in the area served by our railway
    • To serve as a platform for cooperation among transport stakeholders in the area during emergencies such as recent flooding
    • To engage local volunteers, build community spirit and pride in the railway
    • To help find alternative funding sources for transport improvements that meet local requirements

    The franchisee should have a duty to prepare and implement a Station Travel Plan for major interchange stations like Maidenhead, Twyford and Slough. For example, the train operator should actively pursue cooperation with relevant bodies to bring about improved car parking and bus interchange at Maidenhead. A CRO would be an effective way to find solutions for current station access problems at these stations.

  13. While maintaining end-to-end service frequency, could the needs of passengers be better met by providing the operator with some flexibility over calling patterns on branch lines?
    For Thames Valley Branches, services should continue to stop at all stations. Given the small number of stations and service frequency, there is no real potential benefit to skipping stations.

  14. Respondents are asked to suggest what mitigating actions and steps the GW operators should be expected to take to meet the needs of its passengers both during the planned disruption to the GW franchise as a result of planned upgrade works and when ”force majeure• events such as extreme weather, impact the network.
    In general, for both major schemes and local rail infrastructure on the Branch we would prefer to see use of replacement buses minimized or greatly improved. Where required, it is essential that local staff is able to arrange replacement bus services with local operators who are familiar with the routes concerned. It is also vital that information is conveyed to passengers waiting for trains that they should go to a nearby bus stop or pick-up point. This is a particular issue at unmanned stations where there is no working public address system. CIS and other informational signage should alert passengers to the revised service as should the operator’s website. Where possible it is best to keep times and service frequencies as near as possible to the normal timetable. It would also be helpful for the franchisee to consult with local user groups and local authorities to distribute information about planned disruptions. Reading redevelopment and blockades have worked well and could serve as models, even for smaller stations.

    Force majeure events such as extreme weather will generally not allow as much time for preparation and planning as major works. We would urge the franchisee to coordinate with local authorities on emergency plans which have been prepared for such contingencies. When roads are no longer accessible due to floods, ice or snow, often the railway becomes an important or sole alternative for residents, and of course disruption to the railway can cause havoc on the roads. Planning together in advance might help large numbers of people to respond more quickly and more effectively.

  15. Where the provision of temporary, alternative service is unavoidable, respondents are invited to suggest what alternative provision they would prefer the GW operator to put in place.
    Please see response to previous question 14.

  16. Respondents are encouraged to consider what steps the GW operator should be expected to take when reacting to changes in passenger demand, and what targets for capacity should be set.
    Please also see responses to questions 8 & 10

    It is also necessary to provide effective revenue protection as well as conducting surveys at stations and on trains to verify actual usage of services. It might also be helpful to post information about seat availability of different trains at stations so that passengers can choose to alter travel patterns where possible in order to avoid the most congested trains. Some adjustment to fares to encourage shifts from peak to less peak could be beneficial but we hesitate to recommend any changes that end up making the current fare structure even more complicated than it already is.

  17. Respondents are invited to highlight if there are specific stations or services where they feel particular attention should be paid to reliability or punctuality.
    Interchange stations like Maidenhead and Twyford are of particular concern. When connectivity is poor, service frequency becomes a massive issue. Timetabled Branch connections are sometimes not held for arrival of connecting service from Paddington or Reading, even if the delay is small and won’t disrupt return connections. Many passengers thus experience ”near misses• on Branch connections after delays from Reading or Paddington, requiring waits of up to an hour for the next service. We would like for the franchisee to establish policy that ensures consistent expectations and performance for connecting services and train or empower employees to consider good customer service where possible. We recognize that sometimes small delays cascade to impact larger numbers of passengers, but there is often a margin for error in the Branch schedule that could allow connecting passengers to be served without compromising the integrity of later service. With disruptions due to ongoing improvement works likely, this problem requires particular attention.

  18. Are there any areas of the GW franchise where you feel cost savings could be made?
    We endorse the view that the railway should be run in a cost effective manner but without reduction in the size of the network. Certainly clarification of roles/responsibilities and good coordination between Network Rail and the train operator will help improve efficiency. Replacement and upgrading of aging infrastructure should also help drive down unit costs but it is costly and disruptive to make up for decades of underinvestment. More transparency and benchmarking to compare costs across regions or different operators might provide appropriate incentives. We would be wary of prescriptive instructions to reduce costs which are likely to end up being made on the backs of passengers. Some efficiency steps could have unintended consequences and end up being “penny wise, pound foolish”.

  19. Respondents are encouraged to consider which locations merit consideration for future improvements under these schemes.
    Taplow station, where Platform 3 is currently NOT accessible would merit consideration for future improvement under accessibility schemes.

  20. Respondents are encouraged to consider how best to communicate information with passengers across the franchise and how best to keep passengers informed during times of disruption.
    The recently flooding provided a good test case. Many passengers were grateful to be able to travel at all, but poor availability of information or inconsistency among messages from staff, station or on train CIS, websites, National Rail and journey planning services made the task hugely difficult. We now have myriad communications tools to use during disruption, but if the source data is wrong or doesn’t reach all the alternative information outlets, the benefit is diminished. At the very least, well informed staff and regular, clearly audible announcements at stations and on trains would be really helpful.

    During disruption it is imperative to get information out from the signalling centres and staff on the ground where an incident occurs to staff who are dealing with the public and can provide announcements or update real time and social media sources. Direct communication with CIS on board trains will help as well as regular announcements to passengers stuck on platforms. If a train fails or is held up by an incident, the CIS should report this and not just keep incrementing the ”Expected• time as more and more time goes by.

  21. Rail Executive is considering what the appropriate approach for monitoring and improving service quality in the new franchise would be. Respondents are invited to say what matters most to them (for example, cleanliness of trains and stations, or the helpfulness of staff) in terms of the service quality they receive.
    We heartily support the concept of monitoring and improving service quality but would emphasize that review of DISAGGREGATED data from the annual National Passenger Survey (NPS) is crucial to that effort. Unfortunately the NPS averages hide a huge degree of variation, meaning serious service issues may never be highlighted or addressed. In addition to NPS, local passengers can provide useful feedback as well as keeping the franchisee on its toes. We thus support the continuation and rejuvenation of the Customer Panel, a more robust Customer Service function and any encouragement to the franchisee to engage productively with rail user groups. We understand this requires a commitment of financial and human resources and believe that a franchisee should be allowed, even actively encouraged, to make that commitment.

    We are not sure it’s fair to ask passengers to select a single factor that matters most to them such as cleanliness of trains/stations or helpfulness of staff or reliable/punctual trains. All of this is part of service quality and should be the norm. We understand that no operator will be perfect every day, in every location and in every dimension. Problems happen, but how that is explained, managed and solved makes all the difference to the perceived ”quality• of the passenger experience.

  22. Please indicate if there are any additional areas that you think Rail Executive should consider consulting on and that have not already been addressed during stakeholder engagement.
    Additional areas of concern to possibly include:
    • Franchisee should work with Network Rail on a plan for replacing the Victorian token system at Bourne End to ensure future reliability of Branch service
    • Franchisee should work with Network Rail on proper maintenance and repairs at Taplow, including peeling paint, rust and faulty joints on the footbridge, a leaking canopy, dry rot in the platform 4 waiting room, and eroded bricks and patched paint on the central station building.
    • We’d prefer no more short franchise extensions as it hinders investment, decision making and cooperative work when there is uncertainty about how long the train operator will be around.

Susan Morrison
Marlow-Maidenhead Passengers’ Association

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Last updated 19th June, 2014