The Last Word

01.03.15

Northern and TPE ITTs give much ‘cause for optimism’

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Feb/March 2015

Andrew Allen, policy analyst at the Campaign for Better Transport, looks at how the new Invitations to Tender for the Northern and TPE franchises could deliver the required ‘transformative investment’ needed for the region.

In February, the government published details of the Invitations to Tender (ITTs) for the Northern Rail and TransPennine Express (TPE) franchises, which will begin operating in 2016.

 It gives much cause for optimism. At last, the end of the line is in sight for the decrepit old Pacers, with all 220 to be withdrawn by 2020. At least 120 new-build carriages are promised for use on Northern’s non-electrified routes, along with modernisation of existing trains. The messy and confusing fares structure will be replaced with a zonal system more like London’s, providing coherence, consistency and improved opportunities for promotion and marketing.

 There will be up to a third more seats, with higher capacity into major cities and improvements to Saturday and Sunday services planned. And Northern and TPE passengers will not be specifically singled out with fares increases to pay for improvements, as the government had darkly hinted they might be. A plan to hike fares by 3% plus inflation was dropped at the last minute, apparently after an intervention from the Treasury.

 There is still a long way to go before franchises are let and improvements implemented, but what has emerged so far looks like the kind of transformative investment Campaign for Better Transport has been pushing for. Last summer, when the franchise prospectuses were published, such a programme looked frankly unlikely. Here, the talk was of subsidies being too high, the need for fares increases, and how the Pacers could be patched up for another 10 years.

 So, what has changed? There has been well-organised campaigning from big city authorities and others including Campaign for Better Transport that a fast, high-quality and high-capacity rail network is vital to support the region’s economy. Any effective programme of measures to tackle the north-south divide needed to address the poor links which make Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle and Hull less than the sum of their parts.

 This chimed not only with the chancellor’s Northern Powerhouse rhetoric, but with the fall-out from the Scottish Referendum and a strengthened voice for more English devolution, focused on city regions. When well-argued proposals such as our Stepping Stones report came forward, they found a ready audience in the government, local authorities, business and the wider public.

 The starting point of the report is that Northern and TPE need significant investment. Maligning Northern in particular as a subsidy junkie is unfair. The franchise has been denied the renewal and upgrade programmes seen elsewhere in the country. 87% of Northern’s 800 vehicles need to be refurbished or replaced by 2020, including the notorious Pacers.

 But who should pay? And aren’t fares in the north already cheaper than those in the south? Stepping Stones compares a range of ticket prices into Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield with those into London and did reveal lower per-mile ticket prices in the north, but this took no account of differences in the quality of service or average regional wages, which makes fares in the north up to 30% less affordable for local people than those around the capital. As the ITT has acknowledged, increasing patronage through better services is likely to be a fairer and more effective way for raising revenues.

 There are problems with the fares structure on Northern. But rather than looking for ticket prices to hike, the ITT has accepted that moving to a zonal fares system offers the potential of a coherent, understandable and marketable pricing structure to replace the current mish-mash. Not only has this worked well in London and the German Landers, but the Malmo-Copenhagen region of Denmark and Southern Sweden shows how zonal fares can be successfully implemented across different countries.

 Stepping Stones showed how investing in the north of England’s rail network would make the most of other spending that has already been committed. The full benefits of Northern Hub, electrification schemes and other projects due to come on stream in the 2020s would not be felt if another ‘minimum cost’ franchise was let.

 Lastly, and most tellingly, Stepping Stones successfully argued that the current approach to appraisal is too narrow. Investing in new trains and better services doesn’t just mean there are new trains and better services. It supports a wide range of other policies such as those on skills, employment, sustainability and regeneration. The government has accepted the case that by investing in rail, you are investing in those things, too. In doing so it has grasped how investing in the north of England’s rail network can help rebalance our economy.

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