Thursday, 4 February 2010

"Teething troubles" hit Newcastle Barriers

As readers of the blog will be aware, objectors to the ticket barriers at Newcastle station were unfortunately not able to persuade the city's planning committee of the merits of their argument last year. Ernest Dobson, in the Newcastle Journal, now reports back on the immense benefits being enjoyed by passengers as a consequence of the new gates:

He says:

"There are three rows of gates. I use the station several times a week and I have yet to see all of them operational. I understand this is because there are insufficient staff.When not in use, the gates are blocked off using unsightly galvanised barriers, thus negating any arguments about sensitive design.At 5pm on January 21 only one set of barriers was in use and this caused long queues. One man, thying to hold onto his bags while navigating the barriers, dropped a bottle of red wine which smashed all over the floor."
He goes on:

"On only one occasion have I ever seen anyone collecting unpaid or excess fares at the barriers. Passengers are let through by staff without paying because there is no-one to issue tickets."
"One of the most damning features of the operation is the routine opening of the gates after 9pm because there are not enough staff. What trust can we now put in the argument that barriers will reduce anti-social behaviour when they are left open at times when such behaviour is most likely to occur?"

"What was once a vibrant and welcoming place, blessed by stunning architecture, is now a hurdle that has to be overcome to get on a train."

Ernest also reports that he was told that he couldn't take photographs of the barriers because it was "private property" although he could take pictures of trains!

So, despite all the promises, we see the same old problems - constant manual intervention, barriers being left open (often much earlier than 9pm at Norwich!), inconvenience to passengers, an officious obsession with "security", constantly malfunctioning barriers and a total lack of consideration for the passenger.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

York barrier plans scrapped!

Well, it has certainly been an eventful week. We heard last Monday that National Express East Coast had launched an appeal against the refusal of the barrier plans by City of York Council, so everyone was gearing up to write letters to the Planning Inspectorate. Of course, it seemed pretty remarkable that a company that would cease trading within days would want to lodge an appeal at its own expense to install ticket barriers at a station in which it no longer had any financial interest.

Anyway, Friday 13th November turned out to be anything but unlucky because, apart from being NXEC's last day holding the East Coast franchise, the DfT also announced that the barrier plans were being withdrawn "to maintain through access for non-passengers." So that means people will still be able to enjoy crossing over the famous footbridge without travelling by train.

This is all excellent news for the city, though the arguments about the barriers were much wider than simply a matter of through access. There were concerns about the inconvenience to passengers from the barriers - delays and congestion that would deter people from travelling by train - particularly as evidence from elsewhere suggested that the gates were able to handle far fewer passengers than originally claimed. Travellers at Leeds had to cope with months of disruption, and for at least several weeks, the barriers were operating in "accept all tickets" mode - that is to say any ticket, valid or not, opens the barriers.

This "sod the passenger" approach was also evinced in such matters as the proposed secondary access points (the NRM entrance and the cycle racks/ executive car park) where there would be no permanent staff presence. A ticket machine (possibly not accepting cash) would be available, but if the limited range of tickets there wasn't any use, you would have to walk right round the outside of the station to get to the ticket office.

The crux of the matter was that no-one was willing to present a coherent business case for the barriers at a main line station that handles very little suburban or short-distance traffic. Problems with local services such as the Harrogate train could have been dealt with by spot checks on people coming off those trains - better still if a ticket machine were provided at Poppleton station to allow people to buy a ticket before boarding. However, determined not to be defeated, the barrier enthusiasts now have the DfT's support to accelerate the implementation of the barrier scheme at King's Cross.

The proposed new barriers there will cover platforms 1-8 (platforms 9-11, which deal with most of the suburban traffic, already have gates). These bays deal almost entirely with trains that do not stop for some time after leaving King's Cross - many will run to Cambridge, St Neot's, Peterborough or even York before making their first stop. Are we really to believe that on-train checks are not possible in this length of time?

Still, enough ranting for now. One certainly hopes that the DfT's statement will give more power to the elbow of anti-barrier campaigners in Sheffield, where through access across the footbridge is a prime concern. If there's one thing this episode shows, it's that people power can work. Because the good burghers of York were willing to kick up an almighty fuss, the powers that be decided the barriers were more trouble than they were worth. Let's hope the people of Sheffield manage to defeat the scheme there. At the time of writing, there are over 1,000 planning objections to the barriers!

Sunday, 2 August 2009

York planning committee rejects barrier plans

Well, sorry about the break as I've been otherwise occupied with one thing and another, but the momentous news is that on 16th July, the West and Central Planning Committee for the City of York rejected the plans for the barriers at the railway station. Unfortunately, because the application was for Listed Building Consent and not planning permission, this decision had to be made purely on the grounds of the aesthetics, though this had the ironic effect of making the long and turgid justification statement made by National Express somewhat redundant.

The meeting itself considered the item for a couple of hours and the whole discussion was prefaced by a long speech from the council's solicitor. It was quite clear that people were almost tying themselves in knots because of the need to avoid any wider issues being mentioned - even those as simple as the fact that the station toilets will be contained within the cordon.

The outcome: the committee split 6:3 against the barriers, with councillors of all parties coming out against the gates. For the record, Cllr Brian Watson (Lab), Cllr Denise Bowgett (Lab), Cllr Ian Gillies (Con), Cllr Sue Sunderland (Lib Dem), Cllr Ann Reid (Lib Dem), and Cllr Sian Wiseman (Con) all voted to reject the plans. Honourable mention is also due to York Green Party, not represented on the committee, who have campaigned against the barrier plans throughout. Thanks also to the three people who spoke against the barriers at the meeting: Janet Rowntree, Jonathan Tyler and last but definitely not least CABYS chair Verna Campbell. A job well done.

This is a small victory and of course National Express may, if they wish to do so, appeal against the refusal of Listed Building Consent, so watch this space for further developments. This could prove interesting with the recent debacle over the East Coast Main Line franchise, since National Express may be a trifle reluctant to spend around £1m installing barriers as part of an agreement over a franchise they are about to lose. It will be interesting to see what the government decides to do when they take over the ECML and whether they wish to take responsibility for pushing through the barriers themselves.

One small aside - just a month or two before admitting they couldn't continue with their obligations, NXEC rebranded almost all of the signs in York station - which were perfectly serviceable apart from the fact that they were in the colours of GNER, the erstwhile franchise holders. Nice to know that rail fares are being spent on things that really make a difference!

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

NXEC defaults on East Coast franchise

So the news has come through today that National Express have told the government that they're unable to meet their commitment to pay £1.4 billion to the taxpayer over lifetime of their franchise, as a result of which the government will take over the franchise and run it for a year. So after months of being told that National Express "must be presumed to know what they are doing," it turns out after all that they haven't a clue what they're doing, as we all suspected in the first place.

Meanwhile, NX are trying to hang onto their other two profitable franchises, c2c and NX East Anglia, though the government at the moment seems determined to take them away as punishment for their default on the East Coast route.

As an aside, National Express spent a few thousand pounds (we don't know exactly how much) a couple of months back on "rebranding" some perfectly adequate signage at York station for no reason other than that it happened to be in GNER colours; so no doubt in a year's time or so there'll be an excuse to spend some more rail fares on having them all changed to a different brand again. Great.

It's interesting that falling passenger numbers are behind their problems, despite the claim that the new ticket barriers would lead to a "substantial uplift in revenue," where they have already been installed. Unfortunately it appears that the complete disregard for customer service has finally come home to roost.

However, National Express still have another six months to run the franchise, so it isn't clear what this means for the ticket barriers at York. They can hardly carry on hiding behind the argument that it is a "franchise commitment," after defaulting on a couple of slightly more major franchise commitments. Watch this space for further information.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Press statement from York Environment Forum

York Environment Forum has issued a press statement on the subject of the station ticket barriers:


York Environment Forum has objected to the proposed installation of ticket gates at York Station.The Forum believes that the City Council should consider the scheme in much wider terms than how the gates will look in a Grade 2* Listed Building, important though that is. The gates will
* impede passengers
* present an unwelcoming image to visitors to the City
* frustrate people seeing off and meeting relatives and friends
* remove the opportunity to buy tickets on the train
* reduce revenue at trading facilities on the station
* block a popular pedestrian route and force people onto an unpleasant and longer route
* prevent the planned link between the present City and the critical York Central site, and
* take the station out of the public realm instead of integrating it more closely with the life of the city.

Such ticket fraud as exists can be tackled in more appropriate ways than by gates, whereas all these consequences will reduce the convenience and pleasure of travelling by train at just the time when we need to encourage more people to choose rail.

Whatever its legal status, the station belongs to the people of York. In keeping with the Council's commitments they should be involved in its future. It should not be treated as a private fiefdom by a short-term tenant.

The City is awash with partnerships and strategies. We hope that they will not be proved impotent in the face of a threat to a valued part of the City's economy and life.

The Environment Forum therefore calls on the City Council to launch a wide-ranging debate about the future of the station with its partners and with citizens before proceeding to any decision about the planning application.

The text of the objection lodged with the City Council is attached.

Jonathan Tyler (Chair)

York Environment Forum brings together individuals and representatives of voluntary organisations who are committed to building a sustainable way of life. We focus particularly on the City of York and are members of the partnership that wrote and is responsible for implementing the Sustainable Community Strategy.

You can link to the full objection here

Monday, 29 June 2009

Tales from St Pancras and Waterloo

The new barriers were installed on the domestic platforms at St Pancras station earlier in the month, though according to reports they may presently only be in use at peak times. They are by Cubic, who are also responsible for London Underground gates, rather than Scheidt and Bachmann so may be more robust from a technological point of view, but they are not (yet) enabled to take smartcards.

Anyway, a friendly notice has now appeared on the station: "There was a queue at the ticket office. / I had to run for the train / I thought I could pay on the train / I was late for work.

"No ticket - No excuse. Deliberate fare evasion will not be tolerated. If you have the opportunity to buy your ticket before boarding you need to."

So we now find that people who have previously chosen to pay on the train are conflated with deliberate fare-dodgers. The rail industry now seems obsessed with the idea that every passenger is a potential criminal.

Meanwhile, a story appeared in the Independent by Deborah Orr about the ticket gates at Waterloo:

"The man at the Guildford railway platform seemed like a good sort as well, even if he was not a Samaritan, and advised us to go to platform five and the fast train to London, instead of the slow one we were about to board. Alas, at Waterloo, our tickets wouldn't open the barrier, which mystified and baffled us until an attendant pointed out that our tickets were to Clapham Junction only, and that we'd therefore have to have a word with "the management".

The management insisted that we'd have to get on another train and return to Clapham Junction, which we'd only just passed through without stopping, or pay a fine which they would have to calculate, but would definitely be at least £20. Wouldn't it be more sensible, I asked, just to let us out, than to force us to take up two scarce seats on a rush-hour train for no reason, or to punish us financially because we didn't see the point in this pointless exercise? Apparently not. Forty-five minutes, and five layers of "management" up, a besuited and busy chap called Sam Bourne agreed that since I'd convinced him there was no deliberate attempt at fraud, just £2.40 for the Clapham-Waterloo extension fare would secure release from the station. It took a while, but there was some wisdom to be found among the staff of South-West Trains.

What can I say, more generally, about this odd little day trip, except that it is, to me, just another tiny illustration of how the Pharisee mentality has won, and that rules trump all, including common sense, sympathy, logic, kindness, fellow-feeling and personal initiative. Staying within the rules, however counterintuitive they may be, is the curse of our age and time and place. Just look what it has done to Parliament. It's woeful that a preacher from 2,000 years ago could see the perils of living by intractable rules more clearly than anyone from our leaders to our "customer service attendants" can today."

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Committee date for York barrier plans

It now looks likely that the York barrier plans will go to planning committee on 16th July. Whilst the official deadline for comments is 26th June, it's likely that they can be accepted in practice for some time after that.