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Merseyside’s transport future: TSSA’s Liam sets a new direction

25 June 2013

Paul Salveson explores how Merseytravel – which licenses its own TOC – is using its powers to develop the region’s transport network in a very different way to the UK government’s model.

Merseyside has always been a leader on transport. It was the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, opened in 1830, which really started the Railway Age – and there’s plenty of ground-breaking stuff going on there today. Much of this is down to the team led by TSSA member Liam Robinson, who chairs Merseyside Integrated Transport Authority (ITA), which oversees the transport executive Merseytravel.

The area has its own train company – Merseyrail – which is unusual in being the responsibility of the transport executive, not the Department for Transport. It’s a long contract, running for 25 years, which provides the sort of stability that many national franchises miss out on. Furthermore, the close relationship between Merseytravel and Merseyrail has led to a positive partnership which has seen major growth in passenger numbers and new investment.

Merseyrail scores consistently well in passenger satisfaction scores, making it Britain’s most popular regional train operator. It’s also at the top of the class in performance scores, reaching 96.2 per cent PPM this year. Little wonder then that passenger numbers have grown by 40 per cent over the decade. It marks its 10th anniversary in July this year, and there’s plenty to celebrate.

Merseytravel was established back in the 1970s and one of its early achievements was the creation of two underground links that connected up and re-modelled Merseyside’s local rail network. ‘Merseyrail’ was developed as a distinct brand by BR, reflecting the strong local identity of Merseyside. Following privatisation, Merseyrail was kept as a separate franchise covering the local electrified network. It was a radical step by the transport authority to insist that they, not the Department for Transport, would be the franchising body. The new franchise was let to a joint venture between Serco and NedRail (now Abellio) in 2003. The company has an ethos of social responsibility and its staff have raised over £500,000 for charity in the last 10 years.

TSSA member Cllr Liam Robinson took over as chair of the transport authority in 2012, having been elected onto Liverpool City Council in 2008. He has hit the ground running, picking up a number of key projects which could transform Merseyside’s rail network.

‘Rolling stock is a huge issue for us,’ Liam told TSSA Journal. ‘We are going for a complete replacement of our fleet, a project worth over £300 million. We’ve appointed a director to oversee the project and we will be issuing tender notices later this year.’ Merseyside currently operates a fleet of 59 electric units introduced in the late 1970s. ‘The financial package for the order will be challenging to achieve, but we’re confident we’ll do it,’ says Liam. The trains will be owned by Merseytravel or a subsidiary company, rather than a rolling stock leasing company. ‘This is a pioneering approach,’ says Liam. ‘We want to buy the trains ourselves so that the fleet will be owned by the people of Merseyside, not the banks. We’re looking at a range of options across a 40-year horizon which will give us the capacity to expand the network.’

The current Merseyrail system is based on two linked networks: the Wirral Line, reaching out beneath the Mersey to New Brighton and West Kirby and the Northern Line which connects Liverpool with Southport, Hunt’s Cross, Kirkby and Ormskirk. The 75-mile network is powered by 750v third-rail – with parts of the system having been electrified during the First World War. The hub of the network is Liverpool Central, which has recently undergone a major upgrade to handle a huge increase in passenger numbers over the last ten years. It won the top ‘station excellence’ award at a recent ceremony. The work was funded through a partnership between Network Rail and Merseytravel and has resulted in a modern, user-friendly facility which can handle future growth. Further stations are being refurbished as part of a £40m project. The jewel in the crown of Merseyside’s new generation of stations is Liverpool South Parkway, a brand-new station opened in 2006 which serves the expanding John Lennon Airport. It was built as an exemplar ‘eco-station’ incorporating a range of state-of-the-art features which combine energy efficiency and lower life-cycle costs. And it’s a lovely station to use, with excellent passenger facilities. Another special feature of the Merseyrail network is the ‘M to Go’ shops which combine traditional booking office facilities with convenience stores. Merseytravel and the train operator have been at the head of the game in promoting cycle access to stations, with an expanding network of cycle facilities which will soon cover most stations on the network. Merseyrail has its own dedicated cycling officer who is seconded from parent company Netherlands Railways (NS). A new ‘cycle point’ based on NS experience will open in Liverpool early next year. The historic Edge Hill station is now a flourishing arts centre called ‘Metal’ which encourages visitors to arrive by train.

Liam and his team want to see an expanding rail network, working with Merseyrail and Network Rail to plug some major gaps. The 1960s new town of Skelmersdale provided homes for tens of thousands of Liverpudlians displaced by slum clearance programmes. Yet the railway that went through the heart of the new development was closed before the construction work started. Merseytravel is now looking at ways of bringing ‘Skem’ back onto the rail network by providing a new extension from the Kirkby Line. ‘We’re working with West Lancashire District Council and Lancashire County Council on ways of achieving this,’ says Liam. ‘It’s one of the biggest towns in the North-West not connected to the rail network and we want to change that.’ Merseytravel is also looking at other projects which use existing but under-used infrastructure: upgrading the ‘Halton Curve’ to create services from Liverpool city centre, via Liverpool South Parkway, to North Wales, as well as electrifying a second route to Wrexham via the Bidston line on the Wirral. In the longer term, the authority are looking at extending third-rail electrification beyond Ormskirk to either or both Southport and Preston.

Community involvement is central to Merseytravel’s approach and its ‘Community Links’ team is a well- established part of the organisation. They have pioneered innovative approaches to community involvement on the rail and bus network, encouraging children and young people to get involved in transport awareness projects. Many of Merseyrail stations have attractive art work created by local youngsters and over 50 stations have been adopted by the local community.

Merseytravel has a positive relationship with Northern Rail, which operates the ‘City Line’ routes from Manchester and Wigan into Liverpool city centre. The historic ‘Chat Moss’ route between Liverpool and Manchester, built by George Stephenson in 1830, is currently being electrified, allowing this ‘Cinderella route’ to come back into its own as a key inter-regional corridor across the Pennines to Leeds and York. The route from Wigan is also being wired to create a ‘Lancashire Triangle’ of newly- electrified lines. In addition, part of the route between Huyton and Liverpool is being restored to quadruple track by Network Rail. ‘Electrification between Liverpool and Manchester will offer much- reduced journey times between the two great cities and bring huge benefits to St Helens, Newton-le-Willows and Huyton for commuting in both directions. The key worry for us is that we could find we have a new electrified railway next year but no electric trains to run on them!’

Liam and his Labour colleagues on the transport authority back moves to devolve responsibility for the Northern and TransPennine Express franchises to the North. ‘We strongly support the principle of devolution and the success of the Merseyrail franchise, managed by ourselves, shows that the principle can work in practice.’ Liam isn’t content just to manage another private sector franchise when the current Northern and TransPennine contracts end in 2016. ‘I would like to see a not-for-dividend train operator accountable to the community, where the profits are put back into the business so new trains and station improvements can be made. Currently, Northern and TransPennine between them make about a £100m a year profit. We could get a lot of new kit with that.’

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