Rail Industry Focus


Rail in the North

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Dec/Jan 2013

The major transport authorities across the north of England are working on a new strategy document aimed at setting out the priorities for rail in the north over the next 20 years, up to Control Period 8. The document is being produced by transport consultancy Steer Davies Gleave, and Euan Mackay from the consultant team spoke to RTM about the need for the strategy and how it fi ts in with plans for rail devolution.

The transport authorities representing Greater Manchester, South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, York, Merseyside and Tyne and Wear are developing a joint long term rail strategy for the north of England.

Representatives from the region co-operated in their response to the Government’s consultation on rail decentralisation in respect of the Northern and TransPennine franchises and a proposed merger of the two.

Although franchise re-letting, including franchise reform and devolution, is essentially on hold as the Government and the industry awaits the Brown Review commissioned in the wake of the West Coast Main Line franchising debacle, work is pressing on with the Rail in the North strategy document, which has a far wider scope.

An output statement

Euan Mackay, consultant project manager at Steer Davies Gleave, has a key role in the production of the document, which should be delivered to the transport authorities in draft form in early 2013.

Speaking about the long-term nature of the strategy, he told RTM: “We’re really looking up until Control Period 8, so the mid-2030s.

“We feel that for the early part of this period, CP5, we have a pretty good understanding of what’s going to happen and we perhaps can’t do an awful lot to change that.

“But we have the potential to have a much greater infl uence looking beyond that, into CP6 and particularly in CP7 and CP8, when anything is possible. We’re then also getting into the time period when hopefully HS2 will be getting up towards the north. We’ll need to think about how we connect the city centres into the high-speed rail network.”

That shows the ambition and scope of the strategy document: it is not restricting itself to service patterns and rolling stock and the sorts of factors that would typically be considered in a franchise specifi cation, but to track and infrastructure issues, connectivity, capacity, freight and overall priorities.

Mackay said: “It’s important to stress that what this defi nitely isn’t, and won’t be, is just a long list of schemes or very detailed interventions.

“This is going to be an output statement: it’s to inform the industry, and Network Rail, what the north is looking for. Is it journey time reductions that are the key thing driving this, for example? Or electrifi cation? It’s similar, in a sense, to the work that was done originally for the Manchester Hub – now the Northern Hub – setting out what the outputs are, and the idea is for Network Rail and the DfT and the Treasury to try to respond to that.

“It becomes very interesting if the devolution proposition does go ahead, because the specifi ers would really be the PTEs and the governing authorities in the north, and Network Rail would need to respond to that rather than dealing with the DfT.

“The intention is that this strategy demonstrates not just to the DfT, but to a wider set of stakeholders, including other local transport authorities within the north of England, that there is a strategy developed by working with all the stakeholders that has been consensually agreed by them.”


The transport authorities representing Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire and South Yorkshire were the original commissioners of the report, but Merseytravel and Nexus are now part of the governance structure too. “All five of the PTEs/ITAs are at the top table,” Mackay said.

But as a report this summer to the West Yorkshire ITA, discussing the genesis of the cooperation between the transport authorities, noted: “Decentralised budgetary ‘franchisor’ responsibility in the North of England can only rest with statutory authorities. The franchisor is the legal entity that holds the contract with the train operator. The Northern and TransPennine networks cover a large number of administrative areas including 19 unitaries, 9 shires, 4 ITAs, Greater Manchester Combined Authority and Scotland (in relation to Manchester to Glasgow/Edinburgh services).

“It is clear from initial engagement and discussions that not every transport authority in the north is willing, or able, to assume proportionate financial risk associated with franchisor responsibilities and therefore participate in a full way discharging functional responsibilities for the franchise.”

That report continues: “The preferred approach is towards letting a franchise of around seven years, during which time significant changes in the railway will have occurred, and governance structures in the North of England will have developed. Work will continue to develop financial and risk sharing principles that will underpin better outcomes for the North.”

Rural concerns

RTM reported from this summer’s ‘Devolving Rail to the Regions’ event at Manchester Town Hall (see RTM June/July 2012), where some speakers from northern counties like Cumbria had concerns that franchise devolution would still mean big cities taking the important decisions, even if these were cities like Manchester and Leeds rather than London.

The first objective for the Rail in the North strategy has been to support economic growth, defined by Gross Value Added, which again could suggest a bias towards the rail priorities of the major cities, which are of course the engines of growth.

We put this point to Mackay, and he said: “You’re right, the key driver is economic growth, but at the same time we do recognise that the railway – particularly in the north – serves a lot of ‘softer’ or social functions. That too is important.

“We are trying to develop a strategy that suits all of the north, and we do have to take that into consideration.”

The LTRS process is designed to be engaging and inclusive, with extensive evidence gathering among the communities affected, and involvement from the LTAs in the Task and Finish Group.

At an initial stakeholder consultation event in October, Mackay said, addressing those quality of life and connectivity issues was a key issue raised by many.

The other main objectives proposed for the strategy are: improving the quality of the railways in the north, encouraging greater passenger use and reducing carbon emissions; making the railways more accountable to local people; and delivering a more efficient railway, securing revenue growth and reinvesting cost savings to improve rail services.

There will also be some focus on light rail in the strategy, and interfaces with heavy rail, alongside tram-train, but that “won’t be the main focus”, Mackay said.

Co-operation and a ‘tremendous opportunity’

Mackay explained: “We’re ahead of the game in terms of what Network Rail are doing with their own long-term planning process. We have a good working relationship with them, and we’re sharing evidence with them, and getting some feedback from their four studies underway at the moment due to report this time next year: on freight and urban movements and so on.

“We’re hopeful that the Long Term Rail Strategy, once it’s developed and complete, will become something that people across the industry and across the north will refer to.”

The project director for the strategy is Jim Steer, one of the founding members of SDG alongside his high-profile role with Greengauge 21.

He said: “This is a tremendous opportunity for the north. Recent decisions on electrification and the Northern Hub represent exciting opportunities, but also pose some as yet unanswered questions. This exercise will look forward as far as the 2030s to establish a consensus-based vision for rail in the north.”

John Jarvis Consulting is also working on the strategy, which is being produced under a sixmonth commission that began in August.

(Image credit: Alvey & Towers)

‘Nothing has changed’

Although franchising is on hold while the Government awaits and then considers the Brown review, Passenger Transport Executive Group (pteg) support unit director Jonathan Bray told RTM that he had heard nothing to suggest the DfT was getting cold feet over devolution.

He said: “When we met the Secretary of State, he said nothing had changed in terms of the Government’s attitude to potential devolution. We understand that the Brown review will set the context for whatever happens on franchising in general, and devolution is part of that. We’re talking to Richard Brown and his team as well, and we’re still doing a lot of work on the technical and legal issues around devolution of the Northern and Transpennine routes as a combined franchise.”

Asked whether he saw the emergence of a combined franchise as inevitable, or still just one option being discussed, Bray said: “The Government is not committing itself at this stage: it still wants to get more from the north about what overall the north wants to do, which is fair enough.”

It is hoped the Long Term Rail Strategy document will help the Government make that decision.

In the DfT’s report into the responses received to the devolution consultation, published in November, it notes that across the country, “some respondents were concerned that any consortium would be likely to refl ect the views of the core members and that it is essential that consortium partners have proportionately equal weight in decision making”.

It adds: “With regard to Rail in the North’s proposals, a number of neighbouring authorities, both to east and west, indicated they should have voting rights in any decisionmaking by the devolved body. There should be arrangements to safeguard the interests of communities neighbouring devolved areas, including those who might fi nd themselves located between devolved regional centres, at risk from an imbalance of service provision in either direction.”

It also includes detail on the West Midlands proposal, saying: “Centro proposes that it should commission and manage local rail services in the West Midlands. The routes covered would include all London Midland services within the Birmingham journey to- work area including routes beyond the Centro boundary. Consequently, Centro will put in place governance arrangements that will reflect the interests of not only the ITA (on behalf of the Metropolitan Authorities) but also those of neighbouring shire and unitary authorities. Responses indicate that Centro has the support of neighbouring shire and unitary authorities. The main issue is the separation of a West Midlands network based on the Birmingham journey-to-work area and the rest of the London Midland franchise, including the London–Northampton – Birmingham service, which performs a variety of roles including commuting into Birmingham.”

Rail minister Simon Burns said on November 27: “Ensuring decisions are taken by those best placed to make them – those who live and work in those areas – could make certain not only that services are planned to maximise value for money for taxpayers but that passengers get services they need and want.”

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