One of the few (only?) good ideas from George Osborne when he was Chancellor was the concept of a Northern Powerhouse. Gone would be the inadequate connections between the various towns and cities of the north and instead of the ghastly Pacer trains and snail pace services, there would be HS3, linking Leeds and Manchester, but also possibly Liverpool, Hull, Newcastle and any other place that seemed politically expedient.
This plan, first set out by Osborne in the summer of 2014 (those innocent times when there were still political debates that did not centre around Brexit) but it was not clear what was intended and the plan was even criticised by the Institute of Economic Affairs, normally a key Osborne ally, as a ‘headline grabbing vanity project designed to attract votes’. Certainly Osborne was vague and the concept has had more incarnations than a Premiership team’s changes of kit and now goes under the concept of Northern Powerhouse Rail having ditched Northern Hub, Great North Rail Project and Crossrail for the North. However, it was a cunning plan with the added bonus of boosting his vote in his Cheshire constituency.
The current name is much more sensible because in reality the idea was never for a new stretch of line across the north but, rather, a series of rail improvements, some of which might have been on new track. Moreover, improving connections in the north is not about highlighting a specific point to point, such as Leeds – Manchester, but, rather, the need to create a network.
The politics around this is a minefield and getting the various local authorities to work together makes herding cats seem simple, even though most of them are Labour controlled. Brotherly love seems to get lost when one city is battling against another for funds.
Now, though, Transport for the North, which encompasses 20 local transport authorities as well as HS2 Ltd and central government, has published a Strategic Transport Plan. Transport for the North is in the process of taking over Rail for the North as it now has a statutory status as a regional body. This is important since it may mean that eventually money may follow though at the moment the Plan is largely a wish list of schemes that may or may not ever see the light of day.
At the moment, however, the plan which would cost £100bn has no way of being funded. Moreover, it is a classic among documents like this which wants more of everything. So it assumes HS2 will be built, that all the current rail schemes will be waved through by government and there are lots of references to ‘step change’ improvements. However, because rail matters have now been subsumed into a transport organisation, there is actually a much greater emphasis on road than rail it encompasses 80 per cent of commuter journeys in the region. Therefore, no hard choices are made. The improvements are all to be ‘sustainable’ but we are not told how.
While the idea of an integrated transport approach is desirable, the problem with such an approach is that it requires billions spending on every type of transport when actually there is a limited pot available. Politicians do this all the time, refusing to acknowledge the reality of their situation, especially in these days of continued austerity. While of course many more people use the roads than rail, that is, doh, because rail services are poor in the regions. Create, as I have often suggested, a kind of modern Network SouthEast for the north, with trains linking all the main towns and cities at 80 – 100 mph with reasonable fares, then watch the roads begin to empty.
I was, therefore, very impressed with the approach taken by another recent report, published by the Campaign for Better Transport, entitled The case for expanding the rail network
Unlike many such publications put out by rail enthusiasts, the analysis is clear and hard headed. The report is full of clear examples of which lines to open, and rather than just presenting a wish list a clear methodology has been set out about which are feasible and should be prioritised. Moreover, the report suggests there are three phases, with the first one being possible to implement quite rapidly as it mainly consists of reopening recently closed lines or bringing back passengers to freight only routes.
Overall, the report looks at 224 schemes and suggests that 33 of these meet its criteria, and would bring enormous local benefit. The cost of adding these 343 miles of new line, almost exactly split between freight only routes and reopenings, would be around £5 – £6bn, and would see 72 new stations added to the network.
The report’s authors obviously accept that reopening lines takes far longer than it ought to do, despite the huge public and political support (just ask Jeremy Corbyn, who reads this column, about his wish list as he once berated for not knowing where some of them were!) as the process is laborious and aptly named ‘GRIP’. It should, therefore, be possible to get up a head of steam (sorry, lapse) to bring about a genuine programme of reopening. This report could be the start. It sets out a clear methodology, gives examples where reopenings have been successful, such as the Borders Rail having double the expected number of passengers, and it recommends ways in which the aspirations within the industry can gain traction (sorry again) with the decision makers. This is not pie in the sky stuff but a well-thought out and coherent strategy. The naysayers would suggest that it is a waste of money because there is a cost to the taxpayer, but as the report points out, the societal benefits of bringing areas back on to the rail network are enormous. Let’s hope that this report can attract real political backing as it would surely capture the public’s imagination.
Andrew Haines socks it to them
I am used to hearing bland speeches by senior rail managers, which tend either to focus on the difficulties ahead or why rail gets a bad deal. Therefore it was immensely refreshing to see the speech that Andrew Haines, the newish boss of Network Rail gave at a recent award ceremony.
Rather than whingeing or overpraising, Haines provided a very good analysis of what had gone wrong in recent years at Network Rail and pointed the way forward. And that is, according to Haines, very simple: focus more on operating the railway.
Haines focused on two ways in which operational competence was lost when the railway was split up at privatisation. First, it ended the production line of people who, like Haines, had experience of all aspects of the railway. The reason why Haines’s arrival at Network Rail was greeted with almost universal approval in the industry was that he had experience of all sides of the railways, including, crucially, of running a train operating company. Secondly, the franchising system encouraged bids based on financial incentives but which neglected operational resilience: ‘Bidders are rational and they have learned how to win. This has led to highly optimised, complex delivery plans that are much harder to recover when things go wrong’.
While he says it was not inevitable that privatisation led to this loss of operational nous, the way that it was introduced ensured that it did: ‘The way that those changes were introduced has impacted on operational expertise’.
He is not averse, either, to quietly, and in a relatively coded way, give his predecessors a bit of stick. Haines said: ‘Not only did [operations] take a backseat, but it was squeezed. In an organisation focused on project delivery it became the easiest place to look for efficiency savings. He adds that the status of those working in operations in Network Rail was underrated. Expert operational management was sacrificed for other things’. Indeed, remember Network Rail’s erstwhile slogan, “engineering excellence for Britain’s railways” (older readers can check out Rail 483 on my website where I make this point!) which was, as I wrote then, sent the wrong message – that engineering was the focus of Network Rail when, in fact, it is running a railway, safely of course, which is its role.
This speech augurs well. Haines points out that the drop in performance, which is definitely having an effect on passenger numbers, needs to be reversed. He points out that it is really important to target the often neglected small delays, which do not figure in the performance stats. At the moment, no one investigates these or attributes them since there is no financial incentive to do so.
He makes a number of suggestions, including improved training, a better apprenticeship scheme and better coordination between operators and Network Rail, notably by siting teams jointly. Above all, he aims to raise the status and professionalism of operational staff. No one can quibble with that, but achieving it will be harder.