A rail strategy for the North of England

Source: Rail Technology Magazine June/July 2013

Transport Authorities across the North of England have commissioned a new rail strategy setting out a consensual vision and ambition for the coming decades. RTM talked to Euan Mackay from the consultant team at Steer Davies Gleave to find out more about the strategy.

The first ever Long Term Rail Strategy (LTRS) for the North of England is shortly to go out for consultation.

The document was commissioned on behalf of Greater Manchester Combined Authority and the Integrated Transport Authorities for South and West Yorkshire (later joined by Merseytravel and Nexus), and drafted by Steer Davies Gleave.

As RTM went to press, the document was going through a political sign-off process across the Authorities before being put to the public, but we caught up with one of its authors, SDG Associate Euan Mackay, to find out more about the strategy’s themes and wider vision.

Big ambitions

Its central message is a startling one: that there are economic benefits totalling £50bn up for grabs, with Gross Value Added benefits to the North’s economy of £1bn a year, if the strategy’s targets and visions can be achieved. These are wide-ranging, but focus on a doubling of rail’s share of journeys and the creation of a much more connected and integrated network (see ‘The eight principles of an integrated network’ below).

Mackay explained: “The North’s railway network has experienced decades of underinvestment, which is finally starting to be addressed. We’ve got some new routes being electrified, we’ve got the bottlenecks and missing links in Greater Manchester now being addressed [via the Northern Hub].

“There’s a very substantial rail network in the North with over 500 stations, but a very small market share – less than 3.7%, compared to the 4.3% average nationally.

“Rail demand is forecast to grow more strongly than for cars; increases of 6% by the mid-2020s are predicted. We’re also very mindful that this is a mixed-traffic railway, so freight is also very important.

“A near-doubling in freight tonne km from 2011-33 over the next two decades is predicted”, he said.

In planning for this future demand, the strategy has three over-arching objectives: supporting sustainable economic growth; enhancing the service quality and improving the appeal of rail, reducing environmental impact and carbon emissions; and improving efficiency and reducing costs per passenger carried to the public purse.

Integrating disparate networks

The LTRS had its origins in the rail devolution agenda, with Northern cities and transport bodies keen to play a bigger role in franchising.

With the reviews into franchising after the West Coast debacle, that agenda seems to have been on the backburner, with no firm Government commitment yet.

So the LTRS has been designed to be relevant no matter what happens with franchising, or whether there is a merger of the current Northern Rail and TransPennine Express services (though this does seem likely, especially since the franchising dates of the two have recently been aligned).

Mackay told us: “The key device shaping the LTRS is the creation of an integrated network out of the very separate routes and franchises that exist today. The network is disparate, limiting its potential to play its role.” 

He blamed overly-complex fare regimes, perceptions about high fares, and passenger wariness over journeys involving a change of train (only 12% of trips involve transferring between trains at the moment – less than one in eight journeys).

He said parts of Europe have done a much better job of addressing these problems to better integrate their rail networks, and said: “We’re proposing, through the vision, a radically simplified fares structure spanning across all local authority boundaries, getting rid of this issue about PTE border areas, for example.

“There should be a timetable to meet customers’ differing needs, rather than the operational convenience of individual franchisees.”

He said the lack of city-region inter-connectivity is “really limiting the effectiveness of the Northern economy”, since wider travel markets tend to extend further than any single region.

“The North really misses out on agglomeration economics,” he said, despite the steady expansion of some business sectors in particular parts of the North.

“There is a real opportunity to make better use of international gateways”, he said, “including airports and ports, and to use railways to connect areas of economic disadvantage with areas of economic opportunity.”

Infrastructure and services

The strategy is not just a wish-list of infrastructure scheme or lines to re-open: it acknowledges that for this control period and CP5, the likely major infrastructure projects are basically set already.

“That means there’s not so much influence we can have over Network Rail and the industry in the short-term, but as far as the medium and long-term is concerned, we feel we’ve set out some key aspirations for the industry to respond to. The strategy is meant to be a live document, not something to sit on the shelf for 30 years. It will evolve.”

He said the electrification of key routes in the North, and associated plans for rolling stock cascades, should address a few major issues at once, as well as helping improve people’s perceptions of rail to encourage modal shift.

Mackay also said that, despite political sensitivities, the efficiencies agenda meant that there would have to be a debate about some of the least-used train services and stations.

He explained: “Some people may think certain trains are absolutely essential, but in fact, could some of that rolling stock be better used elsewhere? How would the potential specifiers of future franchises rearrange things?

“You do need to ask, if a station has fewer than 10 people using it every day, or even a week in some cases, is there any economic sense in keeping these stations open? Other public transport could be provided as an alternative. Politically, that can be incredibly sensitive, but these are the types of issues the politicians need to address.”

Tackling the cost of travel and journey times

Alongside the aim of doubling rail’s share of journeys, the strategy also includes an “ambitious but achievable” target of cutting the generalised cost of rail travel (a weighted combination of how long it takes to travel door-to-door plus the cost of the fare) by 25%. Mackay said: “That will require attention across a number of elements of the rail journey, including journey time, frequency, interchange, fares, information, marketing, and access to the network.

“We think a more efficient railway will contribute towards a reduction in unit costs, both through increasing patronage and in reduced operating costs. We believe journey times really do need to be reduced, and our strategy assumes a 20% reduction.

“For example, Newcastle-Liverpool, which is currently 3h20 (20 minutes longer than it takes in a car), should be around 2h40. Rail needs to be made more attractive to car users. Rail’s already much faster in terms of connectivity into London from the North, but when we look at the North’s own economy, and the east-west axis, the car is still quicker.”

Mackay concluded: “We hope this vision will be used as a guide for the franchises when they’re re-set over the following few years, giving a single co-ordinated stakeholder voice.

“It sets out some clear ambitions and a determined focus. For those of us living here, as well as for businesses and prospective businesses, the rail network should be a real asset to the North.” 

The eight principles of an integrated network

1. A harmonised and simplified fares system

2. The adoption of a tiered service specification, with European style highspeed systems at the top, followed by inter-regional expresses, urban commuter services, community railways, then metros and LRTs.

3. Ensuring timetables are designed to provide good connections between connecting rail services.

4. Ensuring extensive and user-friendly information is provided explaining how people can connect to other modes.

5. Designing and operating stations to facilitate transfers between all rail services and onward connections via bus, tram, cycle or car.

6. Operational practices designed to facilitate through-journeys, including those involving interchange between different operators, and simple through-ticketing.

7. Investment in infrastructure and rolling stock to create a safe and pleasant travelling and waiting environment that’s accessible for all, to avoid overcrowding and to facilitate the design of a connectional timetable.

8. A progressive introduction of these principles, achieved through the franchise specifications and input into ongoing rail planning processes, and through supporting activities of local planning authorities.


Jb   28/09/2013 at 19:32

I trust the Strategy will include the reinstatement of the missing 11 miles between Skipton and Colne which, in addition to benefitting local residents, would provide another badly needed trans-Pennine rail link. Also, its about time the Leeds Northern line between Harrogate and Northallerton was reconsidered for reinstatement to provide the residents of the City of Ripon direct access to the rail system - once more.

Glynne Gianelli   17/10/2015 at 12:36

The car versus train debate will always boil down to cost. An extra hour or two here and there does not matter. You can stop for a cuppa, get stuck in traffic, spend time searching for a car park. If there are two or more people it comes down to the price of tickets as opposed to the price of a tank of petrol. There need to be more family deals or deals for couples, especially if travelling from outside the area of the Main Lines.

Thomas William Peake   09/12/2015 at 15:20

We badly need the old Kenyon Jun to be reopened, this is between Newton-Le-Willows and Glazebury and would relieve the terrible car parking problem at Newton-Le-Willows. Liverpool Limestreet to Manchester, the old George Stephenson Line

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