The future of the railways in the North hangs in the balance. For the past couple of years, a consensus has developed that the two northern franchises, Northern and Trans-Pennine, should be let on some kind of devolved basis. Both the Coalition parties and Labour have been supportive of the idea that in future these franchises should be the responsibility of a local agency, rather than the Department for Transport.
This arrangement has worked well in Merseyside where Merseyside Passenger Transport Executive rather than the DfT was made responsible for setting the terms of the Merseyrail franchise and letting it, though with considerable financial help from central government. The devolution idea has been in development for some time in the North has, after much negotiation and lengthy meetings in smokeless rooms, resulted in the creation of Rail in the North, made up of 50 local authorities. It has published a comprehensive vision for the local rail services that would improve connectivity between the North’s principal cities on new trains with faster journey times – the kind of improvements that have been taken for granted in the south.
Indeed, while both Northern Rail have enjoyed significant increases in passenger numbers, rail services still remain far below the standards in the south. One only has to point to the continued operation of near 30 year old Pacer trains to illustrate the fact that there has been considerable underinvestment and the north has been neglected. Frequencies are far lower, journeys slower and there is no sign of any smart ticketing arrangements.
Devolution has clearly worked elsewhere. On Merseyside, for example, according to an excellent and comprehensive analysis of the Options for Regional Rail for the Passenger Transport Executive Group by Transport for Quality of Life: ‘The devolution of power has been markedly successful in triggering investment in refurbishment of the rolling stock and appears to have raised the contractor’s performance’. The same goes for other devolved rail services. There have been several reopenings on Scotland’s railways and London has benefitted enormously from being handed control of the lines that now make up London Overground.
Noises from the government had long been supportive. Devolution of the franchises would fit in with its localism agenda as well as fulfilling the Coalition’s need to show that it cares about the North as well as the Southeast. Now suddenly devolution seems to be off the agenda. According to the Financial Times on November the plan is in jeopardy. The local council leaders met with ministers desperately seeking answers to rumours that devolution was dead and the franchises would be let as previously.
At the time of writing, the fate of the plan is unclear. Reliable sources tell me that at one point the whole scheme was declared dead but the political furore has revived it. As one exasperated council leader stressed, ‘we have spent quite considerable sums as were encouraged by the Department to work up the idea’. There may be some kind of compromise but supporters of the idea say this would not work. One told me: ‘The Passenger Transport Executives are already co-signatories of the franchise specification, so it is unclear what could be offered. You either have devolution or you don’t’.
It is all too easy to see why ministers have suddenly taken agin the idea. We live in an incredibly centralised country where local government has as much room to manoeuvre as an elephant in a phone box. Everything is set down by central government, right to the size of signs that control parking and the width of cycle lanes. Losing this central control goes against the ingrained habits of national politicians. They have, indeed, already lost control of several franchises, as mentioned above, and if the North assumed control, eventually the Department might be left with nothing much to do – an idea that sparks more terror than a bomb alert in Marsham Street. Moreover, apparently the junior transport minister Stephen Hammond, MP for Wimbledon, who has recently taken on the principal rail role does not like the idea of devolution. Hence, the civil servants are now intimating to the northern local authorities that the idea no longer finds favour in government.
There are, too, those in the north that see there are risks to the devolution agenda. The current devolved models have worked because central government money has been made available but there is a danger that the local authorities in the north would become responsible for the franchises, but not have the money to purchase the rolling stock which is obviously so necessary. However, as the authors of Options for Regional Rail, point out, devolution could result in enormous savings. The heavily subsidised northern franchises, which currently absorb around £550m in annual taxpayers money, are ideal candidates for more local control. First, there would be no need to franchise the services out to profit making bodies, and therefore the dividends currently extracted by the shareholders would no longer need to be paid. These franchises have little genuine private sector risk since most of their income comes from those subsidies. To save money, new trains could be procured directly, rather than through rolling stock companies, which would be cheaper as local authorities can borrow money at lower interest rates than the private sector. Therefore the authors of the report calculate that around £36m per year would be saved by having devolved, public sector solution rather than the current arrangement.
There are bigger issues at stake, too. Devolution was seen as part of the deal that would guarantee support for HS2 from areas which feel that they have been left out because there are so few stations planned for the line. If the rug is pulled under the feet of devolution, then that support might turn into outright opposition. The rail devolution package was also part of the wider City Deal government initiative, a key part of the government’s regional policy. What seems like a local issue will have far wider repercussions and abandoning devolution would further alienate the north.
Books for all
This has been a bumper year for railway books that address wider policy areas, rather than just straightforward histories (not that there is anything wrong with them). This is Christmas time, so it is worth going through a few that you may want to ask your loved ones for. The highlight was undoubtedly Holding The Line: How Britain’s Railways Were Saved by Richard Faulkner and Chris Austin which explained how there had been several attempts by British politicians and civil servants to make damaging cuts to the railway network. Thanks to meticulous research of government documents and extensive knowledge of the system, the pair uncovered aspects of the Beeching story which were hitherto unknown and, even more interestingly, other later secret attempts to reduce the railways to a useless rump. A sequel is promised and I can’t wait.
Tanya Jackson in British Rail, The Nation’s Railway provides a much needed balanced assessment of the achievements of BR. She relates how, under BR, the distinction between the social and commercial railways was understood for the first time and pays tribute to its achievements given the backdrop of constant financial pressure. However, while regarding BR as a success, she concludes that this does not mean we should return to the days of nationalisation.
Paul Salveson, in Railpolitik, bringing railways back to the community does not believe in a return to BR either but certainly argues for public involvement in the railways in terms of the creation of mutuals – rather like the way that Network Rail is run but more accountable. The book, though, is particularly useful in looking at how other countries run their railways and at the various initiatives by communities to support their local railways.
Aside from the policy books, there has been a very good spate of historic books, too. My favourite is Steaming to Victory by Michael Williams which is a meticulous account of how the railways won the war as it was the lifeline of the nation. Every aspect of the war effort ultimately depended on the smooth function of the network. It is strange how the Great Western attracts more books than any other and there have been two good ones this year. Adrian Vaughan in The Great Western’s Last Year, Efficiency in Adversity, has produced an evocative history of the last year of the only railway company which survived almost unchanged from its early creation in the 1830s right through to nationalisation. Meanwhile, Colin Maggs gives a very comprehensive account, embellished with lots of interesting anecdotes, of the company in History of the Great Western Railway. And like Barry Doe who mentioned the book last week, I enjoyed The Station Stop, Peter Caton’s quirky and random account of fifty years of rail journeys.