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Regional rail revival: the European dimension

2 March 2012

Paul Salveson explores the successes regional governments across Europe have had in creating massively popular, highly integrated rail systems, and asks 'what are the lessons for us?'

Europe map

At a time when we are being told that booking offices should close, railway staff are over-paid and our railways cost much more to run than our continental counterparts, it’s worth taking a look at how regional rail is delivered in other European countries.

The first thing that strikes you is the remarkable revival that regional rail has undergone in many countries. There has been major investment in stations, rolling stock and information systems coupled with a close integration with local bus services. A common feature of most if not all of these successes is the strong involvement of local or regional authorities. In some cases they actually own the railway, whilst in others they have responsibility for franchising services and ensuring high levels of inter-modal co-ordination. Let’s do a quick ‘Cook’s Tour’ to see what’s happening.

Germany was the first major country to reform its local and regional passenger services. Whilst having some experience of local, publicly-owned railways stretching back to the 19th century, the early 1990s saw the launch of a pilot scheme in northern Germany with two ‘failing’ branch lines transferred to a local authority-managed railway called the Durener Kreisbahn. It was taken out of the control of Deutsche Bahn (DB), whose only interest in it had been to shut it down as quickly as possible. Over the next few years a positive dynamic of improved frequencies, investment in new rolling stock, station modernisation and re- signalling took place. From a handful of trains a day hauled by over-powered diesels, modern ‘Regiosprinter’ trains operated a half-hourly service to rural communities in the area. Unlike many ‘new generation’ local railways, the operation is vertically integrated with operations and infrastructure under unified control. Ridership leapt from a couple of hundred a day to thousands, with growth of over 500 per cent. The railway is now owned jointly by the county council and a private company.

Seaside Railway

The Usedom Seaside Railway crosses from island to mainland on Germany's north coast. The system brings together all the benefits of a locally-managed railway, covering train and track, but under the umbrella or a national operation.

The success of the Duren project encouraged the German Federal Government to go ahead with a more general regionalisation of services. Germany has a well-established system of regional government, based on the 16 ‘Lander’ (states) which cover large areas. The La?nder were given powers to take over franchising of local services. This led to a flowering of innovation in local rail services and some outstanding successes. In many parts of the country neglected branch lines suddenly found they were getting much-needed investment, with new management , station refurbishment and new rolling stock. The German rolling stock manufacturers found themselves with orders for hundreds of new trains, mostly diesel railcars which have provided a huge leap in ride quality, passenger comfort and reduced running costs. Many other small networks of lines have been franchised, with DB Regio and other larger groups tending to win most of the contracts. Some of the routes are owned by consortia of local authorities which have invested heavily in upgrading infrastructure. One of the most interesting developments is DB’s policy of creating what are in essence ‘vertically integrated’ operations for rural self- contained networks.

The Netherlands decided to follow Germany’s example and the Dutch Government initiated a programme to devolve local rail services to county authorities. One of the first was the network around Arnhem which was taken over by a joint venture of NS (Netherlands Railways) and French operator Keolis called ‘Syntus’, combining rail and bus operations in one locally-managed business. Services were re-structured to remove competing routes, creating a ‘fishbone’ pattern, with the railway providing the core and buses feeding in to local station hubs. However, Arriva – an increasingly important player in regional rail franchises across Europe – has won the contract to operate most of the Syntus routes from December 2012. It’s symptomatic of the changing scene that when DB recently bought British-based Arriva plc, the new owner was forced to sell its ‘Arriva Germany’ subsidiary and Italian Railways (Trenitalia) snapped it up.

France has an extensive regional rail network (marketed as ‘TER’) which is facing major change. Since 2002, regional councils have specified the contracts for regional passenger services and SNCF is the sole provider. The recent ‘Grignon Report’, produced by a right-wing MP for the French Government, proposes further liberalisation to allow other operators to bid for contracts – a suggestion strongly opposed by the rail unions. Denmark has also seen major controversy over franchising of passenger rail. The partnership between state operator DSB and UK-based First Group has fallen apart and DSB has decided not to bid for any more foreign contracts.

Basque Railway
A Euskotren train - a service of the Basque government - leaves Hendaye, just over the border in France.

The situation in Spain is of particular interest, where strong regional governments have been established for the Basque Country and Catalonia. The Basque Government took over the near- derelict metre-gauge network in 2000 and began to invest in the ‘Euskotren’ (ET) system which links Hendaye (just over the French border) with San Sebastian, Bilbao and other centres. The results are impressive. New rolling stock has been introduced and much of the core route between Bilbao and San Sebastian is being doubled to allow for increased frequencies. The railway is ‘vertically integrated’ with a single unified management covering operations and infrastructure. Feeder bus services to local rail hubs are mostly provided by ET’s coach fleet. Fares are astonishingly low and trains, unsurprisingly, are busy throughout the day. Euskotren is a very different business to most transport operators: its mission statement stresses social and economic objectives, social responsibility, protecting the environment and meeting the needs of both passengers and workers.

What does all this tell us? Firstly, that ‘regionalisation’ brings results. By having a strong focus on local markets and local needs, regional authorities can develop a rail network which is accountable to the communities it serves, integrated with local bus services and is affordable and accessible. The second observation is that regional franchising is not necessarily the only, or best, option. The experience in the Netherlands, where the achievements of a good operator risk being undermined by the uncertainties of a new franchisee, serve as a warning. There is a growing tendency for foreign, state-owned companies to put in seemingly attractive bids which risk undermining transparency and accountability. A further ‘negative’ is the fragmentation of ticketing on many networks with different operators.

Does the experience offer anything to trades unionists and rail campaigners in the UK? It shows that there are other, possibly more successful, models than the traditional state-owned railway. Democratic control, and even better ownership, by elected regional government has led to huge improvements which in turn have resulted in new employment opportunities as services and routes expand. For my money, the Basque model has most to offer. Quite how they have got round various EU restrictions on vertical integration and rolling stock procurement I’m not sure – but if they can do it, so can we! In England, with the partial exception of London, we don’t have regional governments to take on a lead role in rail. We do, however, have the passenger transport executives which are accountable to the Integrated Transport Authorities, in the big conurbations. They could provide the basis for a consortium of local authorities and PTE/ ITAs in taking over networks such as Northern. ScotRail is already accountable to the Scottish Parliament via Transport Scotland and I suspect the Welsh Government will soon take control of its railway network (including some parts that lie in England!). In the short-term we may be stuck with franchising for these networks, but in the longer term a better approach is for new regional authorities to take direct ownership of the regional railways, or establish an arms-length social enterprise/co-operative, with public sector and worker representation, to run regional rail services on the community’s behalf.

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