A fascinating fight ahead for the East Midlands franchise

It’s easy to overlook the Midland Main Line as it sits between the two great Anglo-Scottish routes. That’s despite its southern terminus being St Pancras. This architectural masterpiece towers over the smaller King’s Cross and the large but unloved Euston.

However, East Midlands Trains doesn’t use Barlow’s splendid trainshed. Its services run into four platforms housed under the station’s northern extension built as part of High Speed 1’s restoration almost a decade ago.

Those four platforms are aided by a further two underground that handle the Midland Main Line’s suburban services as part of Thameslink.

Today’s Midland Main Line runs to Sheffield. Tracks continue on towards Leeds and point further north but for EMT as the route’s intercity operator, there’s little north of Sheffield save for the occasional extension to Leeds (where it has a depot) and a summer service to Scarborough.
Look at the franchise map and it appears as a ’T’ with a crossbar of east-west services from Crewe towards Skegness, Liverpool towards Norwich and Nottingham towards Cleethorpes. The descender heads towards St Pancras while there’s also a Doncaster-Lincoln-Sleaford- Peterborough service.

Next year should see a competition to decide which operator will be running the trains from July 2018. Currently it’s Stagecoach which took over from National Express in 2007 (when the franchise was altered to include some routes previously operated by Central Trains). Its mix of intercity, regional and rural lines will, the Department for Transport surely hopes, attract more than the two bidders seen in recent competitions. Stagecoach rarely likes losing competitions and must be considered a likely bidder. First too, with the traffic mix not unlike its Great Western operation. Arriva has experience in the area as well (it changed the name of one of its subsidiaries to Arriva Rail East Midlands on November 23) and National Express might be tempted to take more interest in Britain than it has recently.

Bidders will be chasing a franchise slightly different from today’s. The new East Midlands franchise will take over from Northern services between Cleethorpes and Barton-on-Humber while the DfT is yet to decide whether to switch Nottingham-Liverpool services to TransPennine Express.
These changes aside, the existing EMT franchise brings in annual revenue of £407m from 470 daily train using a fleet of 94 units, according to the DfT’s prospectus. It has 2,095 employees and delivers 26 million passenger journeys to an overall satisfaction score of 86%.

Since 2011/12, the farebox has grown 5.3% annually while passenger journeys have climbed 2.4% on the same basis. This means that the operator is extracting more from passengers for each journey. These figures come from DfT, EMT’s own accounts record an increase in passenger revenue of 2.0% for 2015/16, compared with 11.0% for the year before, showing a sharp slowdown in growth.

Of the current franchise’s operating costs, DfT says that 39% (£124m) goes on costs such as fuel, rolling stock maintenance, stations and administration; 30% (£97m) on staff, 21% (£66m) on acccess charges and 10% (£31m) on rolling stock leasing charges. EMT’s accounts show that it paid DfT £141m in premium (down from £232m the year before) and received £67m in revenue support (£155m in 2014/15). Net payments to government were £74m in 2015/16 and £77m in 2014/15.
EMT recorded turnover of £392m and an operating profit of £31.9m, equating to an operating margin of 8.1% (2014/15: 2.7%), much higher than the more usual 2-3% for train operators (and accounted for the the fall in premium, with EMT not including revenue support in its turnover figure).

The new operator will be looking to increase revenue. DfT will be looking for higher premium payments and is unlikely to permit such a high profit margin. EMT’s successor will need to cut journey times and increase capacity and travel opportunities between cities. The DfT specifically wants to see the new operator support the government’s plan to make the Midlands region an “engine for growth” and support tourism, with the prospectus mentioning the need to work collaboratively with heritage railways.

Rolling stock will be a challenge. EMT uses HSTs and Class 222 diesel-electric units for intercity services and a mix of second-generation diesel units for regional and local journeys. Before Network Rail’s electrification plans stuttered, there was a chance to switch London-Sheffield journeys to electric trains. Now NR only talks about electric trains as far as Corby, just 30 miles north of Bedford where the wires stop today. Hybrid electro-diesels, such as Hitachi’s Class 800, are a possibility but for the cost, bidders might opt for straight diesel.

EMT has no Pacers to ditch but its Class 153s and 156s date from the 1980s with its Class 158s slightly newer. With Northern ordering modern DMUs and newer types, such as Class 170s, becoming available from other franchise, there might be a chance to cut the average age of EMT’s fleet from 24 years.

NR might only talk of Corby but the East Midlands Council retain wider ambition. The councils talk of wires to Sheffield and Corby. They want London-Nottingham in under 90 minutes (it’s 100 minutes today) and London-Leicester in under 60 (it’s 62 today). They add a ‘Regional Express Network’ into the mix in DfT’s prospectus, based around hubs at Derby, Leicester, Lincoln and Nottingham and talk about links to Birmingham, Cambridge, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester.

A new franchise provides a chance to emerge from the shadows of the East and West Coast Main Lines. We’ll know what’s planned in March 2018 when DfT expects to announce the winner.

This article first appeared in RAIL 815, published December 7 2016.

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Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.

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