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Look North!

1 November 2013

With the Government looking as though it may devolve significant railway powers to the North of England, the tectonic plates of railway politics are shifting, says Paul Salveson.

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There is an expectation that the Secretary of State will make an announcement shortly about devolving franchising powers to the new Rail North consortium of 33 local transport authorities, including the integrated transport authorities, county councils and unitary authorities. Detailed negotiations between the Department for Transport and Rail North have been on-going for months, with a key issue being how much cash transfers with the franchising responsibilities. Northern politicians are canny enough not to accept a deal which provides for anything less than the current baseline of funding to support existing services. There’s a further issue as to whether the DfT will merge the large sprawling ‘Northern’ franchise with the inter-regional TransPennine Express operation. Both have been extended to February 2016, though it isn’t wise to assume they will be combined. Following the Brown review of franchising there is a move away from ever-larger franchises towards smaller units. Whatever happens, it is possible that both franchises may become the responsibility of Rail North.

A parallel development has been consultation by Rail North on a ‘Long Term Rail Strategy’ for the North of England. The draft strategy is the most important document ever to have been produced specifically on the North of England’s rail network and has some very positive aspirations. It offers the North an opportunity to raise its game significantly and look at the network as a whole over a period of 20 years. It provides a positive framework for the growth of a network which could contribute much more to economic growth and regeneration. Whilst the original Northern franchise, set up in 2004, assumed zero growth, the strategy recognises that there will be continued growth in passenger numbers. The resources therefore need to be there to meet that demand, with greater infrastructure capacity and more trains.

Nobody would say the draft is 100 per cent perfect and it will inevitably be honed by the responses to the consultation. It needs a more compelling ‘vision’ for the North which binds sustainable development much more strongly into rail, seeing the rail network as a catalyst for growth. It needs more emphasis on people, recognising that rail can be a tool for social cohesion. We still have far too many stations which are inaccessible. And it should be less tightly focused on rail and be more imaginative in its approach towards complementary forms of transport, particularly the bus, but also cycling and walking.

A long-term strategy for rail needs to avoid just becoming a shopping list, but has to have some ‘meat’ to make it more than just a generalised set of aspirations. It should provide an over-arching vision which contains tangible outcomes, including further electrification, new rolling stock and line re-openings. It’s good that the plan includes freight, but it needs more detail on how a greater shift from road to rail freight can be achieved. There is scope for distinct sub-strategies covering electrification, network development (re-openings), rolling stock, community rail, stations, fares and ticketing and accessibility.

Are there specific issues from a trade union viewpoint? Passengers and workers share a common desire to keep a visible staff presence on trains and at stations. Merseytravel, the PTE which manages the Merseyrail franchise, has a policy of staffing stations throughout the operational day – a principle which needs extending across the North, if a good case can be made. Merseyrail’s experience of providing ‘station shops’ could be applied to dozens more stations.

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There are some other issues raised by the post-2016 franchises in the North. Assuming the Secretary of State does allow Rail North to take responsibility for local and regional rail services, the embryonic Rail North structure is already in place to take up the challenge. There is a robust structure of overall political governance to ensure the 33 transport authorities have a real say in how things are run, whilst ensuring there is a tight executive. It’s inevitable that the big metropolitan transport authorities will have a strong influence, but authorities such as Cumbria and Lancashire have lobbied hard to ensure their voice is heard too. In the North-East there has been strong support for a distinct ‘business unit’ within the new franchise which would give a strong management focus on the particular needs of the area. A similar approach could work in other non-metropolitan areas.

There is another aspect to the unfolding story of rail in the North. If the 33 authorities, mostly Labour controlled, do get rail responsibilities devolved from the DfT, some thought should go into looking at how a future rail operation is delivered. Does franchising in its current form really give best possible value for money? A growing number of people in both the rail industry and local government would agree with the rail unions and say it doesn’t. However, the opportunities for radical change in the short-term are limited. Though we may well have a Labour Government in 2015, the bidding process for the new franchise in 2016 will start in a few months. The unions and Labour need to have a deliverable strategy which recognises short-term obstacles as well as opportunities, and have a longer term vision which involves a more radical shift from franchising.

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Labour, the unions, the co-operative movement and their allies should be looking at creating a viable ‘not for profit’ bid for the 2016 Northern franchise. That needs significant resources to be able to mount a credible challenge, but it could be done. The best structure would be a co-operative which ensures genuine ownership by both employees and passengers, with a business culture which combines social responsibility with entrepreneurial flair. If we have a Labour Government in 2015, a new Secretary of State should introduce legislation which gives regional authorities the option to use different approaches to the discredited franchising model. If a ‘not for profit’ franchise bid was successful there would be much to be said for continuing the operation beyond the likely seven years franchise period, with periodic reviews to ensure that value for money and a quality service were on-going.

Instead of looking back to a mythical golden age of a monolithic state-owned BR, let’s look to the future and build something which is really radical and meets the aspirations of our founders – for a railway which really does belong to the people.


Paul’s book ‘Railpolitik: bringing railways back to communities’ is published by Lawrence and Wishart price £14.99. Members of TSSA can get a £3 discount by quoting discount code ‘railpolitik’ when ordering at www.lwbooks.co.uk. Paul would be glad to talk to TSSA members about the book at branch and divisional council meetings. He is on paul@paulsalveson.com.

 

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