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Laying the ground rules

What will the sSRA's upcoming strategy document contain? Richard Thompson predicts.

The sSRA's strategic plan due out in the autumn will set out the authority's programme for tackling problems of quality and capacity and map out plans for promoting railway use.

The plan will offer a framework of support for developing better services from a bigger rail system.

In the main it will be for suppliers to respond to incentives, subsidies and grants which the sSRA offers, and to undertake the necessary investments and service improvements.

But as well as defining the framework in which it wants to see the train operating companies and Railtrack work, the sSRA will be paying for a number of smaller schemes aimed to improve outputs directly as well.

Such schemes - and more than 300 are being considered - all give modest passenger benefits. These relatively small enhancements to the network range from improving sections of track to shave minutes off journey times, to building extra platforms at stations to increase capacity by enabling trains to turn around faster. The schemes will cost between £50,000 and £10M and those selected will have to offer best value.

However, sSRA is not working in isolation. In deciding which schemes will go ahead, consultation meetings have been held throughout the country with TOCs, freight operators, passenger transport executives and Railtrack, and only once this consultation is complete will any decisions be taken.

The incremental improvements are intended to enable some quick wins, while also complimenting the future long term infrastructure improvements that the sSRA and Railtrack have in mind.

As strategic policy the sSRA is seeking a step change in service quality, with an overall objective of increasing passenger and freight volumes.

It believes that rail's potential as a high-capacity, high-quality carrier, operating on corridors that lead directly into city centres, can help alleviate environmental and congestion problems experienced on the road and the air network.

The sSRA's approach is to focus on the projects that build on rail's strengths, examining routes on which significant demand growth has been experienced since privatisation and for which further investment can unlock significant economic and financial benefits.

Rather than re-opening routes and stations previously closed, this is normally likely to mean expanding the capacity of the existing network by removing key bottlenecks on junctions and route sections which are operating at full capacity.

The sSRA's freight strategy is still under development but it says it is clear that rail can readily expand its market share, particularly in intermodal traffic, if its price and quality respond to market needs. Strategic investment in increasing network capacity at key locations has the potential to yield the kind of high-quality paths that logistics chains demand, the sSRA says.

To achieve passenger and freight growth on the scale now needed requires a change in the public sector's approach to rail projects, the sSRA says. This means not only must the public sector develop the confidence to back expansion in rail output but assume the role of a provider of 'patient capital', funded through the sSRA's Rail Investment Fund, to bridge the gap left between the network's investment needs and constraints on Railtrack's financing capacity.

sSRA criteria for appraising TOC franchises

A key element of the sSRA's strategy is to attract new investment in the railways by offering incentives for train operators in the form of longer operating franchises. To assess franchise bids the sSRA uses a range of criteria.

Passenger service requirements:

New franchises will be based on existing PSRs, providing for a minimum service level. Where a higher level of service is already established, this will also be incorporated into the new franchise.

Capacity: Provision of adequate capacity to meet customer demand is a fundamental requirement of franchise replacement. The new franchise holders will need to improve on the system for measuring existing capacity and forecasting future demand.

Fares: The existing range of regulated fares with an overall cap of RPI -1% will be maintained. However the cap may be altered after significant improvements have been delivered.

Performance: The TOCs will be expected to make 'robust commitments' to continuous year on year improvements in performance against national standards related to each type of service. Incentive payments may be doubled and penalties increased.

Passengers' Charter: Franchise holders will be expected to develop a 'national service guarantee' which improves on current compensation levels.

Quality measures: Quality of service on the whole journey will be measured.

Passengers will be surveyed and the results possibly linked to incentive payments.

Integrated transport: Stations must be made more accessible by all forms of transport. Security at car parks, disabled access and multi-modal ticketing are all priorities.

Open access competition: TOCs will be encouraged to raise the possibility of competition for routes where 'benefits in terms of enhanced frequencies and lower fares' can be identified.

Other factors: Proposals will be invited from TOCs which will result in provision of greater capacity on commuter services;

improved safety standards; increased services and reduction of overcrowding on interurban/ intercity routes; improved station facilities; improved quality of information to customers; consistency with local transport plans; provision of enabling infrastructure to allow expansion of freight services; and the exploitation of opportunities provided by co-funders to improve railway services.

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