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10.11.16

City-regions ready to embrace rail devolution

Source: RTM Oct/Nov 16

Jon Lamonte, chief executive of Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) and chair of the Urban Transport Group, discusses the opportunities and challenges for rail devolution in the city-regions.

One of the most significant trends for rail in the UK over the last decade has been the successful devolution of responsibilities of local rail services. Devolution – full or in part – now extends across Scotland, the north of England and a growing proportion of London’s local rail services. It’s coming to the West Midlands soon as well. 

Over time devolution has resulted in more investment, higher passenger satisfaction, better performance and networks that are more responsive to local needs.

Devolution has worked because local decision-makers see the critical importance of local rail in delivering their wider objectives of inclusive and sustainable growth. 

Rail gets people into increasingly vibrant city centres that would otherwise risk being undermined by traffic congestion. It also provides wider connectivity between sub-regional and secondary centres. Devolved responsibilities also mean that opportunities to pool a variety of funding sources for improvements can be more easily realised. 

And it has led to widespread innovation, from combining convenience stores with ticket offices on Merseyrail Electrics to ScotRail’s specific economic development remit, which includes working with local authorities to turn around struggling town centres. 

London Overground is perhaps the most spectacular example of the benefits that devolution can bring. Under both British Rail and nationally-specified rail franchising, London’s orbital rail routes were a neglected afterthought. Now the TfL roundel graces new trains on a high-frequency metro service operated under exacting franchise standards and with stations fully staffed. Not surprisingly, patronage has gone through the roof.

A Network Rail that delivers 

We want to see the benefits of franchising deepened and widened further with full devolution in the north, the introduction of devolution on West Midlands Rail and the extension of devolution over more local rail services in London and the south east. For the city-regions, our ambitions on local rail services are part of a bigger ambition to knit together disparate bus, rail and tram networks into a more integrated offer for passengers – through common smart ticketing; services that connect with, and complement each other; and a single network identity and guiding mind. 

But to fully achieve our ambitions we also need Network Rail to better map onto a devolving UK and its devolving transport responsibilities – with a Network Rail organisational geography that more directly relates to that process of devolution. 

We also need a Network Rail that delivers. All too often key wider transport strategies are being held up or undermined by Network Rail projects where timescales drift whilst costs rise. The South Yorkshire Supertram trial is a classic example. In European cities tram-trains have been a great success in taking people from suburbs to high streets whilst relieving pressure on central stations. In South Yorkshire, the tram-train vehicles are being delivered, but there is still no infrastructure to run them on because the targets for completion are repeatedly being missed by Network Rail. 

Rotherham Central (SYPTE) edit

Greater role for city-region transport authorities on stations 

We also believe that city-region transport authorities could play a greater role on stations. Too often, outside the largest terminals, heavy rail stations are a neglected asset which only poorly relate to the rest of the local public transport system, where passenger facilities can be minimal and where opportunities for the station to become more integrated into the wider commercial and community life of its local area are being missed. 

My own organisation – TfGM – is making the case for greater local management and responsibility for rail stations. As part of the 2014 GM Devolution deal, TfGM is exploring a new way of thinking and a new operating model. This will potentially see the transfer of asset management and station operations to TfGM on extremely long-term leases (circa 100 years) as opposed to shorter-term, franchise-based periods of 7-10 years. 

This approach will allow for increased and more efficient funding solutions to be provided that will seek to address holistic station improvements, including delivering a more accessible and inclusive estate. It is an opportunity for stations to be more than a boarding point, becoming transport hubs that are designed for and benefit the local communities they serve. The proposal strives for the best and most appropriate facilities but also enables stations to fully realise their potential to aid economic growth and local regeneration. 

Exciting and challenging times 

In making the case for a greater role on local rail services, it’s important to stress that this should not, and would not, be at the expense of the need for good rail links between our cities. Connectivity between our cities and with the wider world is vital to realising the full economic potential of our cities. That’s why we strongly support HS2 as well as better east-west links (particularly on the TransPennine) corridor. 

Neither do we want to see rail freight squeezed out. Our vision for urban freight is for as much long-haul freight as possible to be routed to the city-regions by rail or water, with last mile deliveries made by low-impact modes wherever possible (including by low or zero emission vans and cycle logistics). 

Managing the use of scarce capacity between local and long-distance passenger services alongside freight will always have challenges. However, through initiatives like Transport for the North and Midlands Connect, as well as more fully empowered city-region transport authorities, there are the mechanisms to co-ordinate the trade-offs that sometimes need to be made in a way that also relates to a fuller understanding of the economic strengths and priorities of sub-regions, as well as the planning of highways networks. 

These are exciting times for rail in the city-regions. There is a consensus both on the vital role that rail plays in underpinning inclusive and sustainable growth in the city-regions and on the wider benefits of devolving more decision-making on transport. At the Urban Transport Group, we look forward to playing our full part in working with the rail sector to making the most of the opportunities that lie before us.

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W: www.urbantransportgroup.org

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