Bob Poynter considers the case for enhancing the rail service between Nottingham and Lincoln

People in the East Midlands will not be surprised that the Department for Transport views complicated re-franchising as an opportunity for new services and better connections between the East Coast Main Line and cities in the Midlands and North as a potential first step to improving journey times on east-west routes that it regards as inadequate across large parts of the network. They have been refusing to fund the introduction of a much cheaper and easier option for months.

Nottingham is one of eight designated core cities in the country; the Core Cities Group has demonstrated their critical economic role as they are major centres of business and wealth creation that in turn power the economy of the surrounding region. Lincoln is one of five principal urban areas in the East Midlands and the railway between Nottingham and Lincoln provides a strategic link between these major centres of population. The economic importance of the Nottingham, Newark, Lincoln corridor has been recognised by the government as in 2012 they invested £350m to upgrade the A46 trunk road between Widmerpool, east of Nottingham, and Newark. In contrast, the railway line  that runs parallel to the A46 between Leicester and Lincoln has been shamefully neglected and arguably now has one of the worst train services in the country.

Certainly it is one of the few railways in the country where the specified train service has actually been made worse over the last decade. The rot began in May 2003 when the two trains per hour service was reduced to hourly. In June 2005, the through train service from Lincoln and Newark to Birmingham was withdrawn, and key well loaded  peak-hour trains like the 17.06 Lincoln to Nottingham were simply withdrawn without any consultation. As a result the present service specified by the DfT for the route is woeful.

The train service on seaside branch lines like Exmouth to Exeter is better in every respect than that from Nottingham to Lincoln. Exmouth has two trains per hour, the Lincoln line service is hourly; six trains an hour arrive in Exeter from Exmouth before 09.30 with just three trains arriving in Nottingham by that time. Of which other UK commuter service is this true? The Exmouth branch has 14 trains each way on Sundays, the Lincoln line has only six trains in each direction with the first arrival in Nottingham after 16.00. The level of service on the Exmouth line has been very successful, generating a 37% in journeys over five years. If the Exmouth branch can support the present level of train service, the route from Nottingham to Lincoln, with five times the population, must surely justify at least the same level of service.

Journey times are also poor. The fastest train on the route takes 48 minutes, an average speed of 42mph. Over half the trains, including many at peak periods, take far longer. Unbelievably the key 17.17 departure from Nottingham takes no less than 69 minutes to get to Lincoln, an average speed of just 28.9mph!

The case for economic development around the line is strong. It serves a population of around one million people, the Nottingham conurbation is the biggest centre of economic activity in the entire East Midlands, and Lincoln is the fifth biggest city; the corridor currently hosts 350,000 jobs. Lincoln’s economy suffers from its relative isolation from the rest of the UK, with below average GDP/GVA. The need for improved connectivity is long established as crucial to promoting economic growth in and around Lincoln. Together with Newark and Nottingham, Lincoln is a designated growth point with an additional 56,000 houses planned to be built in the corridor over coming years. The railway is unique in that it serves three growth points within 35 miles. In addition, the government has designated Beeston as one of Britain’s first Enterprise Zones, which the LEP expects will “create between 5,000 and 10,000 new jobs”.

Following a meeting between Newark Business Club and East Midlands Trains, a stakeholder board was formed in November 2009 to develop the case for improving the train service on the route. The board is chaired by the managing director of East Midlands Trains, David Horne, and has representatives from business, local authorities and passenger user groups, as well as Network Rail. By the end of 2012, the board had identified a strategy that would transform the train service on the route within five years. It is based on enhancing Network Rail’s planned re-signalling of the line during that period and the fact that higher line speeds would allow faster journey times and improved rolling stock utilisation. The initial stage, with the then hoped for introduction in December 2012, is the extension of the hourly Matlock to Nottingham service to Newark Castle serving intermediate stations with faster journey times for the hourly Leicester to Lincoln trains. Stage 1 is critical to drive the increased use of the line that is essential for Network Rail to make the business case for the infrastructure improvements.

The benefits from the strategy include two trains per hour between Nottingham, Newark and Lincoln with an average journey time of 44 minutes, with the the same level of rolling stock required to operate the initial stage. Even Stage 1 brings real benefits, the average journey time between Nottingham and Lincoln reduces from 60 to 53 minutes, there are more arrivals in Nottingham before 09.30, the service frequency between Newark and Nottingham is doubled and the service from Hykeham to/from Nottingham increases from eight to 18 trains per day. The service improvement at Hykeham would complement the £4.75m of government money provided for the LN6 development in the area through the Local Sustainable Transport Fund. The overall strategy is exactly the type of productive approach that the government should be initiating and not resisting. Funding of £700k per annum for three years is necessary to implement Stage 1.

During a visit to Derby in November 2012, the chancellor, George Osborne, stated that: “I am really willing to work with the East Midlands to improve the quality of bids, make sure that they get the money and funding that they deserve.” Sadly the message appears not to have reached the DfT. When announcing a second wave of City Deals, the deputy prime minister Nick Clegg stated that he wanted the 20 cities and wider areas invited to bid for City Deals status “to come up with ambitious and innovative proposals to help them make changes that will be felt by everyone across their region”. Neither Nottingham or Lincoln currently have City Deals but, in the light of the announcements by two senior government ministers, the strategy appears to be exactly the local driven proposals they are seeking.

However, approaches to the government for financial assistance to kick start the strategy have been firmly rebuffed. In March 2012, leaders of all local authorities on the line wrote to the DfT requesting financial support for the improved train service; their request was flatly refused and they were told that if they wanted an improved train service it must be funded locally. Through the offices of Patrick Mercer, the Newark MP, Newark Business Club was marginally more fortunate in obtaining a meeting with the then minister of state, Theresa Villiers, at which they were promised further meetings with DfT officials. These have taken place with support from both Nottinghamshire County Council and Newark and Sherwood District Council with the same result. The DfT seem totally disinterested in the merits of the case or that the aim is to drive economic growth through the restoration of trains that they have withdrawn; their sole objective appears to be to maintain a policy that improved train services must be funded locally for the first three years.

Unsurprisingly, given the cut back in government funding for local authorities, it is proving very difficult for them to commit to additional spending for rail services at a time when they are having to cut core services. Unless some government funding is forthcoming, a major opportunity to transform the train service at a limited cost to the taxpayer will be lost

Given that the East Midlands frequently leads the national economy out of difficulty and has a high number of marginal political seats, it seems extraordinary that the government is so complacent about support for the region. Treasury statistics show that spending per head on transport in the East Midlands in 2012/13 at £187 per head was the second lowest in the UK, 30% less than the average for England and no less than £109 lower than the national average. The conclusion must be that the region is less successful at lobbying than other areas of the country.

However, things are changing. A group of cross-party local MPs has asked for a meeting with the minister of state, East Midlands Councils are arranging a summit meeting of local authorities and Newark Business Club has launched the RailFAIR! Campaign that has already attracted over 1,300 signatures. If the chancellor wishes to maintain his credibility in the region he needs to instruct the DfT to ensure that the improved service between Nottingham and Lincoln is introduced in December 2014 before it becomes an issue in the 2015 general election.

 

This article, and many others, appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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