Rail 478: Cash crisis jeopardises rail’s regional regeneration role

Regional rail routes are a key driving force for economic regeneration, but Christian Wolmar warns that soaring costs and the remoteness of the SRA are putting this role at risk.

Regional railways are the oft neglected Cinderella of the railways. The simplistic view of the regional and local network north of Watford is that it absorbs all the subsidy and caters for very few passengers. The statistics are wheeled out with great frequency – 70 per cent of rail journeys originate or end in London, 40 per cent are on the southern commuter network.

Indeed, if there was to be a round of Beeching type cuts, much of the network around northern towns would have to be closed down since closing a few branch lines would not achieve major savings. Yet, there is much worthwhile that is happening in the regions, some of which is being put in jeopardy by the current crisis of funding at the SRA which has seen the scrapping of the Rail Partnership Programme and a completely risk-averse and penny pinching attitude by Network Rail.

Take Leeds, for example. Over the past twenty years, a rather disparate and rundown set of urban lines has been transformed into an effective commuter network used by just under one in ten with jobs in the centre of the city. Overall, that means 14,000 commuters come through Leeds station every weekday, a number which has risen by an average of 6 per cent every year since 1997. Sure, set against London’s 450,000, that number may seem trivial, but for the local economy, it is very important.

I took a trip along the Wharfedale line to see how investment in a relatively little used line can make a difference. At privatisation, clever wangling by the West Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive managed to ensure that a set of new class 333 Siemens trains would replace the old clapped out 308s which had been cascaded from the London, Tilbury & Southend when the line was first electrified in the early 1990s. Basically, the PTE held the then government out to ransom, saying it would not sign off the old North Eastern franchise unless new rolling stock was part of the deal.

The result was the new trains, which together with an improved timetable, mean that people can feel confident about using rail to get to work. Usage on the line has increased dramatically, at a much faster rate than in the rest of the Passenger Transport Executive area – 19 per cent per year since the new trains were introduced three years ago. Many of the stations along the way have been improved, and cleverly, money collected from fines for performance failure from the local franchisee, Arriva, have been reinvested in local station facilities, a unique arrangement which the local PTE negotiated with the SRA.

Other improvements have included passenger information delays, restaffing three stations, extra car parking and new waiting shelters at stations. None of this is particularly innovative, but it all contributes to creating the impression that the railway is a pleasant and reliable service.

I visited Menston station which used to be unstaffed, but now the previously derelict station building not only has a ticket office but also a small IT centre where people can access the internet and use other office facilities. The idea was to make Menston into a local transport interchange and there is also now a dedicated bus link to the nearby village of Otley.

The case for making such improvements to local railways goes well beyond immediate transport considerations. The government is eager to see the gap in incomes between the north and south reduced. It also wants more civil servants to work there. Railway lines are an important tool of regeneration, one that is insufficiently recognised. One of the indicators of improvements in an area is rising houses prices and Kieran Preston, the director general of South Yorks PTE, says that people are moving to be near stations on the improved line knowing that it means they can commute by rail. Indeed, rail modal share at peak times has become remarkably high near some stations on the line – for example, 75 per cent from towns and villages served by stations north of Shipley.

Moreover, if the government is serious about getting people out of their cars, providing a good train service like on the Airedale and Wharfedale line which both have new 333s is essential. Expecting people to leave their comfortable cars at the station in exchange for a clapped out Pacer is simply unrealistic. Driving into Leeds is more of an option than driving into London and therefore the alternative has to be attractive.

Kieran Preston says that for investment of around £2.5m for platform lengthening at 13 stations and rolling stock costs of around £4m per year, he could increase the capacity of the West Yorkshire network at peak time by 50 per cent. Two new stations would be built, too but their addition would require extra capacity on the track because of the time taken by the trains to stop there.

Preston complains that the complexity of the privatised structure has greatly increased costs and delayed the implementation of projects. Outside the newly refurbished Leeds station, there is construction site that will, by the middle of next year, become a bus interchange. According to the PTE, the project has been five years in gestation but only requires just over five months building work.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, the local PTE opened a series of new stations and improved services on much of its network. Now, costs and the involvement of so many organisations (such as the SRA, Network Rail, the rail regulator, the HSE and above all, their expensive lawyers) make this much more difficult to achieve. New stations are becoming prohibitively expensive. Whereas in 1999, Brighouse was built by Metro at a cost of £900,000 Glasshoughton, due to open this year, will cost £2.3m which includes £90,000 for insurance against a mega catastrophe required by Network Rail, a completely unnecessary expense.

There is no shortage of other local examples where costs on projects have soared. Even a simple platform extension of a few yards to cater for the slightly longer 333s costs £72,000 – i.e. a staggering £144,000 for a station. Putting up a bus-type shelter on a station will cost £20,000 compared with just £3-4,000 if it is at a bus stop.

This is an issue which has come up time and again over the past few years and it is time that both the SRA and Network Rail tackled it. But that highlights another problem for regional railways. Aside from money and soaring costs, the biggest stumbling block is the remoteness of the Strategic Rail Authority which has no presence in the provinces. Its organisation is, with the exception of an office in Scotland run entirely from 55 Victoria Street.

The SRA has abandoned its growth agenda, and ideas such as spending money to boost rail usage in West Yorkshire do not seem to be even on the organisation’s horizon at the moment. Viewed from 55 Victoria Street, however, giving more money to a PTE which already receives £60m per year in subsidy for rail services may simply appear profligate. Preston argues that under BR, the subsidy was a quarter of that amount, because costs were assessed in a different way and the PTE was allowed to own its rolling stock, whereas now it has to be leased. ‘So we are victims of the way the industry is structured.’

Yet, if Leeds continues to be the boom town of the north, such investment will become an essential part of tackling local transport problems. The SRA is conscious of the criticism that it is too south-east focussed and recently Jim Steer, its managing director of strategic planning (why does the SRA insist on such silly business-oriented titles?) set up a regional planning team. While that is a step forward, it is not the same as having a strong regional presence with ‘champions’ arguing the case within the organisation for local schemes. Until there is such a structure, the real value of schemes like those in West Yorkshire will all too often be ignored.

Among the ideas being floated about how to restructure the railways is to give the new regional development agencies – the kind of role in financing local rail services that similar bodies have in Germany and several other European countries. There is, of course, a rather long way to go since the RDAs are at an early stage and this would involve a radical transformation of how the railways are run. But the PTEs, created by Barbara Castle in the late 1960s, have shown themselves to be a pretty effective way of improving local rail services and could be used as a model for elsewhere in the country. The transfer of Merseyrail’s franchise to the local PTE could presage other such moves, but not if the current structure of franchising is retained.

However, there is a risk, too. The next government is going to be looking at ways of cutting the £4bn subsidy to the rail industry. By handing over responsibility to regional bodies, it could avoid being blamed for any cuts in services that result. Localism, therefore, is a double edged sword.

Mystic Wolmar too quick off the marks

An apology from Mystic Wolmar. No sooner had Mystic filed his copy with predictions for next year on Friday December 12 than one of them almost instantly came true. David ‘two brains’ Willetts, the Tory frontbencher, gave an interview in the Daily Telegraph saying that his party was looking at the structure of the railways, and one of this year’s predictions was that such a debate would take place. Honest, readers, it was not a matter of hindsight but of fortuitous foresight.

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