Nexus and the Keep Metro Public campaign group came together in May 2010 to stage a unique question time event for public transport users at Newcastle’s Centre For Life.
Here is an edited transcript of the questions asked and answers given during a lively two-hour debate, chaired by former MP Jim Cousins.
QUESTION: How is DB Regio (the new Metro Operator) to make a profit from the Metro train service? Why are taxpayers in Tyne and Wear to provide profit for a private company whose head office is in Germany?
Bernard Garner (Director General of Nexus): The conditions that were applied to the £580m funding package we won from Government to modernise Metro was that we demonstrated best value for money for everything that we did. To demonstrate best value it was necessary to go through a procurement process which started with 13 major international bidders and at the end of the day DB offered the best service going forward.
And what that means is that Metro users in the future get the best possible service at the lowest possible price, and DB will only make a profit if they deliver that quality of service, because if they don’t deliver that quality of service then there is a penalty regime applied to payments to them.
Nexus like every public-funded body uses private companies to deliver services on their behalf and profit for those companies is absolutely essential to create jobs and to maintain employment in the area.
Doreen Purvis (Tyne and Wear TUC): I believe that transport is a public service and should not be run for profit, it should be like the NHS or education, free at the point of use. It should be paid for out of general taxation or council tax, I don’t think it should make profits to give to shareholders.
Areas like the North East are heavily dependent upon public transport because of low car ownership and people are priced out of public transport because if you are unemployed £1.50 for a bus fare is a considerable slice out of your income. It means people cannot travel use supermarkets and take advantage of good offers, they have to use the corner shop, and to some extent if they are infirm they are virtually prisoners, so I believe a free transport system could be beneficial in all respects.
Councillor David Wood (Chairman of the Tyne and Wear Integrated Transport Authority): I When Mr Garner and I went down to London to minister to make the case for Metro modernisation we were told in no uncertain terms that the whole scheme had to prove value for money. By obtaining Government funding the future of Metro is now secure, and I would hate to be going to Government going for any sort of funding given what we are hearing now. The concession model was one that some members of the ITA weren’t too comfortable with but at the end of the day we said it was what we had to do.
Vicki Gilbert (Chair of Keep Metro Public): Sadly, we weren’t successful in our campaign, but we think that public services should be controlled, operated and funded from the public purse. That is going to be very difficult in the present situation and we have to accept DBTW are the new contractor. We do not believe in any outsourcing. We believe that profit should go back into Metro, where Nexus did an excellent job and it was recognised as being one of the most efficient rail companies in the whole country and we would have liked to have seen it carry on like that.
We don’t believe profits should be creamed off for shareholders, we think that profit created out of the travelling public should be put back into the community, the problem is that under globalised capitalism this cannot happen because the World Bank, the EC, the IMF and G20 have set what the rule of the game are so we see that the three parties are all hide bound by the rules that they set.
We did see an alternative to that and that was called a service improvement plan and we did argue this through the campaign that that would have been an alternative and possibly kept the Metro in-house with any surplus going to the local communities so we don’t believe in profit motive, we think that it is an essential service that should be controlled within the local community by Nexus.
Richard McClean (Managing Director of DB Regio Tyne and Wear Ltd (DBTW): When Nexus put the specification for Metro out to the market, they put together a detailed specification for a high quality public service, higher than the quality Nexus at that stage were able to justify funding for themselves. These levels of quality are built in to the service I will be providing to this community in Tyne and Wear for the next nine years. And the single matter that Bernard said earlier, that I will only be able to deliver the planned financial results for DBTW if I succeed in meeting those targets consistently day-in day-out.
I am hoping you will start to see some of the benefits from the specification that Bernard and his team put together. The same people that have been working on Metro, some of them for the last 30 years, are able to turn their attention to achieving the results they have always wanted to in all sorts of different area, so the fortunes of the company I work for and the service Metro provides are absolutely linked together.
FOLLOW-UP QUESTION: Bus companies won’t operate a bus without a subsidy when demand is low - so is the same going to happen to the Metro?
Bernard Garner: The quick answer is ‘No’. It is very different. DBTW will operate the service to a specification Nexus has set, the first train, the last train, the frequency of the service, the quality of operation, punctuality, reliability - that is all set down in the specification and managed by Nexus, so Nexus is responsible for the service, it just means DBTW is delivering it on our behalf.
QUESTION 2: Does the panel believe there is a case for free public transport, beginning with young people and unemployed, and can Nexus guarantee that the Gold Card will be maintained at its current level?
Cllr David Wood: The Gold Card has been kept to the same price for the last four years and we are hoping to keep at that level for as long as we can.
There is certainly a case for free travel but everything comes at a cost. Currently for young people we have introduced £1 a day travel for under 16s - I know my granddaughter uses that regularly and she is only six years old, but the money her parents save is a tremendous boon.
I would we need something quite radical on this, from transport operators who are subsidised to a terrific amount from the public purse, for instance if you go to a cinema the child ticket is subsidised by the cinema people themselves. I would like to see the bus operators put their hands in their pockets and start subsiding fares for young people and unemployed people. The ITA has supported some schemes which fund travel for unemployed people when they first return to work - it is important they can see the benefits of getting to work – but it all comes down to cost.
Doreen Purvis: The simple answer is ‘Yes’. At my place of my work a Green Group we tried to encourage people to get out of their cars and onto public transport but I can remember one individual telling me there was no power on earth would get her out of her car. Well actually something did - when she reached 60 and she got a concessionary pass and it wasn’t costing her anything, that got her out of her car and onto public transport.
The thing that deters people is often cost and even with concessionary fares if you’ve got three or four children it is quite a lot out of the family budget. Let’s get people out of their cars and onto public transport, if we have got to get them free transport to do it lets look at ways at doing that.
FOLLOW UP QUESTION: Why are fares so expensive for young people and why are there not more subsidies?
Bernard Garner: We have done quite a bit to reduce the cost; we have introduced the Cat ticket, which provides unlimited travel for pound a day. We have been able to do that because it was prioritised by the ITA and it has had a positive effect we now carry something like 15% more children’s journeys than we were before, that’s two million extra journeys by children every year, so it has made a difference.
There are significant benefits if public transport could be free, but in the real world it has got to be paid for, and with the funding that is available to us, the best we can do at the moment is that unlimited travel for £1 seven days a week.
QUESTION: Why cannot DB, with the profit it makes, subsidise the price for young people?
Richard McClean: As the operator of Metro we are not involved in setting fares, we collect the fares only. Setting fares is something Nexus and the ITA do on behalf of the whole community we then provide a service that those fares pay for.
Vicki Gilbert: This is a very political question. There are two cities in the world that have free transport systems, in Yugoslavia and Belgium, so it can be done. There is vast private wealth out there – enough to bay off the national debt –
So there is enough to make public transport free. We have a problem on our planet trying to get people out of cars and this could do it.
Cllr David Wood: The transport system in London is very heavily subsidised and child travel there is free, so it proves that it can work, but that money comes from national government, and they won’t give it to the region but that is a political question, but the simple answer is the government should be funding it.
QUESTION: Many people find safety and security measures on Metro trains and stations desperate, and often you see police dealing with general anti-social behaviour. What plans do Nexus and DB have to address this problem and wouldn’t it make much more sense to have staffed stations rather than staff patrols?
Bernard Garner: Nexus recognises that safety and security is one of the key factors by which people decide whether or not to use public transport. But the perception of crime is much higher than the reality, and over the last five years we have spent a lot of time and effort working with police and local authorities to reduce the level of crime on Metro. We have been successful, it has gone down by a third over the last five years. But we do recognise it remains a problem and when it came to the specification for operations delivered for us, we wanted to make sure an operator brought all its experience from across the world. I am very pleased that DB’s overall proposal included a number of innovative steps to actually deal better with the issues of fear of crime.
Richard McClean: We recognise the perception of security, particularly at evenings and weekends, is a major barrier to Metro use. One objective Nexus set us is to increase ridership across the whole day but particularly targeting those times where ridership drops off at the moment. We have got at our disposal our ticket examiner teams, security officer teams and initiatives with police. In London in the last two years we have converted what was a really high crime railway with major problems. In the last two months we have been testing some of those techniques on Metro, changing the rosters, changing the way teams are structured and what they do, and we have seen quite a bit of significant change in behaviour in certain areas at certain times, particularly with the level of ticketless travel halved. And what we do know is people who don’t buy tickets are often associated with antisocial behaviour. New gates at some stations Nexus are introducing will also help.
Vicki Gilbert: At Cullercoats where I live I have found there have been four muggings in the last few years, and they may not all have been reported to the police, but that spreads around the area and people get to know, get to feel that it is not safe for women to travel at night. It does not feel safe on many Metro stations, like Byker and Chillingham Road, and that isn’t just perception. If you put staff on trains and stations you would increase your revenue to a vast extent, once it gets dark a lot of women do not want to travel. This is also about anti-social behaviour and unmuzzled dogs and loud music and people who have been drinking which make travel uncomfortable for others.
QUESTION: Government emphasises the need for those delivering public services to consult with users to provide better services, so will Nexus consider setting up a passenger’s representative committee?
Bernard Garner: There should be a committee, but we believe it should be independent of us and not started by Nexus. We should be accountable, we have recently held a huge consultation on local bus routes, and also set up an online forum so we can be.
Cllr David Wood: When the ITA was the old Passenger Transport Authority we took the decision we formed new sub-committees – the Bus Strategy Working Group and The Equality Diversity Group – where we invite people to come give us there experience. It would be nice if there was an independent group which could do that as well, I would certainly welcome that, as would members of the ITA.
Vicki Gilbert: I hope such a group will be recognised, not just about Metro because I don’t think it is one issue, although that is what we are discussing today.
Doreen Purvis: Any group should be made up of people who have the real day-to-day experiences of travelling. I would be dead keen to see a Users Committee, I think it should have some kind of standing, I am sure there will be people willing to volunteer to be in some kind of partnership and some kind of recognition that they are a users committee.
Richard McClean: I have been providing public service on railways for the whole of my working and I always had engagement with users groups on every route that I have worked on before. I would absolutely relish the opportunity to have more contact with the public I am serving.
QUESTION: Nexus has been promising since 2008 that it would find ways to lift the ban on mobility scooters on Metro, but nothing has been done and it is affecting people’s everyday life. What is going on?
Bernard Garner: Metro is a very accessible system but over 18 months we had four accidents with people using mobility where the scooter ended up on the track. It was good fortune no Metros were coming at each time or it could have been disastrous. My ultimate responsibility is safety, and because of those four incidents it was no longer safe to allow scooters on the system without some significant change. We have worked with disability groups, with manufacturers of mobility scooters and looked at our own infrastructure to see whether we could get enough changes to allow mobility scooters to be used safely in the future. We haven’t yet got to that position, but doesn’t mean we are not trying to get there still. Until I can create a situation where people can use the system safely with mobility scooters then I am not prepared to compromise passenger safety.
QUESTION: Are there any plans for Metro to be extended to areas like West Newcastle, Gateshead, Washington, Houghton, Hetton and Doxford International. Given that Sunderland tax payers pay a higher contribution to Nexus what service do they receive when the Metro line is not running?
Bernard Garner: Yes. Modernisation means Metro will be around for the next generation because we able to replace, renew and upgrade the existing system. That means we can work with our partners to look at how we extend and develop the system further and the areas that you talked about are all very high on the list.
Only a small percentage of Metro funding comes from local authorities, about 10%. The other 90% comes from Government or from fares. The contribution that Sunderland residents make to Nexus makes a small contribution to Metro - the vast majority of the money goes to fund concessionary fares, school bus services, reduced fares for children, managing bus stations, bus stops, bus shelters, information, and so forth.
Vicki Gilbert: There should be expansion because there are lots of areas that are ill served, Sunderland especially, but also vast areas estates all over Tyne and Wear that are ill served by the transport system. It does mean a lot of investment and it should come from the Government.
Cllr David Wood: As a Newcastle Councillor I represent one of the most impoverished wards and that is Walker, and can I assure people Metro doesn’t go to Walker and lots of others areas. If it wasn’t for the aspirations of councillors and years ago we wouldn’t have a Metro system now. We have to have aspirations to spread public transport, not just Metro, but integrating buses better into the system. Sadly, I think the days are nearly over of getting large sums of money from Government.
Doreen Purvis: I am old enough to remember a direct rail link between Sunderland and South Shields without having to go by Pelaw, and I’d like to see that again.
QUESTION: As Sunday is normal working day for many people, should we still have reduced bus and Metro service and also something that extends public transport beyond 11pm in the evening to areas like West Newcastle that have no Metro?
Bernard Garner: Society is changing, Sunday is becoming a busier day for shopping and trips out and the demand for public transport is gradually increasing. We are also gradually responding to meet that, as are the bus operators but we have not yet got to the point where the Sunday service is as good as the Monday to Friday service. In my view that will continue.
Doreen Purvis: It’s not just shopping and trips, it is visiting people, because we are a more fragmented society, and our nearest and dearest don’t necessarily live on the doorstep any more, people want to visit relatives on Sundays. Where I live people were quite distressed to find the bus services were altered, there wasn’t a bus that could take them to a church service on Sunday. So instead there is a system of giving people lifts and more car journeys around. I am not an advocate of 24-hour shopping or 7 day a week shopping but there are things that people want to do on Sundays that involves travel so I particularly welcome any innovations to the services to make Sunday a less difficult time.
Cllr David Wood: It would be nice if there were more public transport on a Sunday, in certain areas it would be nice if we could have it after 6 o’clock. But the current situation is that bus operators have been cutting services to maximise their income, and that is the world that we live in at the moment but it would nice if we could work together with bus operators to see how we can solve it.
QUESTION: What steps have been made to redesign Metrocars to allow bikes on board, and to bring back an integrated transport system?
Richard McClean: One part of the plan agreed with Nexus is to work on how make the Metro more accessible to people using more forms of transport; that includes discussion with bus operators, working on improving how people who cycle to and from stations can use the system and working and looking at other transport modes, including the car. There is park and ride which is still an effective solution to the whole of the region’s transport issues, so transport integration for all modes, walking, cycling, bus and car are part of the plans we have got to deliver.
QUESTION: As the Metrocar comes to the end of its life, my question is where will you be making the new ones?
Bernard Garner: We need to start around 2014-2015 with the design stage to specify what we are actually going to buy and then we have to go through a tender process, but we are required to go through a European tender process at that point in time, so they will be built wherever we get the best possible value for money for those Metrocars. And that is what we are legally required to do.
QUESTION: What measures could be taken to improve the conditions for walking around Metro stations such as signage, buses to local places?
Vicki Gilbert: I think the signage existing in the stations is excellent and the quality of it is easy to read and will last a long time. But the signage to things like where the toilets are, or to tell somebody who has just arrived at Cullercoats how to get to the beach is not good. I am sure people will have other things to say about their own area, so I do think that we do need to improve. Another thing I would like to see from DB is a timetable leaflet for every station, not for three stations down the way so you look at it and you have got this three minutes too late for your train.
Richard McClean: We would like to work with people who can give us advice, who specialise in how services integrate in their communities. There is a lot of signage on the stations themselves, but outside the boundary of the station we need to work with the community and other authorities to get some of the signs more accessible.
QUESTION: Do Metro Byelaws give any protection to passengers who are this captive audience by advertisers using the loudspeaker system?
Bernard Garner: The protection is that they are restricted to 30 seconds every five minutes, and bearing in mind it’s only at the underground stations where it is under a 3 minute frequency so for the vast majority of passengers you would only expect to one advert. I suppose the other thing to say whilst this is advertisement, one of the most recent campaigns was advertising jobs and employment opportunities, and I understand it was very successful and got quite a good response to that. I do appreciate if you are standing there for long period of time listening to 30 seconds every 5 minutes, then there is a significant downside to that, but the vast majority of passengers I would say it can happen at a frequency of every 5 minutes but the frequency is only every 3 minutes.
Richard McClean: Balance is everything and the primary purpose of the public address system is to provide information about the system. We have to fit that in with controlling the noise in the community, we have in the outdoor areas very strict controls at the number of announcements we can make. So I keep a careful eye on how we are getting that balance and it is as Bernard says timetable frequencies and the frequency of other announcements as well. We must not let the public address system be taken over by some running commentary on commercial opportunities to all sorts of outlets.
Doreen Purvis: I would like a sort of addendum to the Byelaws about advertisers using actors with exaggerated Geordie accents, there was one particularly obnoxious one which nearly reduced the number of Metro travellers because we were ready throw ourselves under oncoming trains. “Eeh well pet I was going to do this”. So please no Geordie accents.