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Devolved rail bodies ‘see decisions as investment, not cost’

Handing fundamental transport powers to a devolved authority who oversees services on a daily basis will ensure decisions are regarded as an investment, not a cost, rail leaders across the north have said.

Speaking at the Northern Powerhouse conference last week, attended by RTM, Northern Rail MD Alex Hynes and Transport for the North (TfN) boss David Brown were both major spokespeople for the benefits of devolution, as well as privatisation, in making the case for the north.

“Central government regards things as a cost. Give that decision to a devolved authority who sees it on a daily basis, sees the contribution these rail services make to the economy of the north of England, and actually, they’ll regard it as an investment – and then they’re prepared to spend more money on it, to pump private out of the vicious circle into a virtuous one,” Hynes argued.

Brown, who is taking a lead on TfN’s imminent report, added that the northern body is far better placed to “lay out the thing that we think we should be able to do” than central government.

“Specifying what the requirements are for the motorway network and the rail network, something which currently sits with Highways England and Network Rail, will be far better done by TfN at the level of the north, because we objectively understand the frustrations of colleagues trying to run their businesses,” he said.

“And actually, things that are important to the north might not be important on a national basis. If we had that responsibility, then we would be able to do that on behalf of businesses and cities in the north.”

As he gave  his keynote speech on the latest HS2 report, published that afternoon, HS2 Ltd chair David Higgins also endorsed the importance of devolution happening alongside the major infrastructure project.

“If HS2 is the catalyst for change, then devolution is the glue that will drive this change,” he said.

Brown also outlined the importance of getting ahead of the ‘London debate’ – dwelling on why the capital gets more money than the north – and “actually be clear about what we want and why we want it”.

“If we make a compelling case, it’ll happen at a point in time when funds are available,” he added. “What we lack at the moment is clarity of what it is we’re asking for, and rather than spending a lot of time stamping our feet and saying it’s very unfair, I think we should put the energy into making the case.”

The TfN boss added that a vital component in that is developing long-term investment and infrastructure plans to ensure “we can invest in the future once funding becomes available”. In the north alone, for example, HS2 and HS3 can bring in an extra economic output of around £40bn a year, he said – “so surely that’s a prize worth investing money in”.

“I think we often get dragged into a conversation that says this is a lot of money and that we can’t really afford it,” Brown added. “But I think the question is: can we afford not to do it, if we want to see that economic growth?

“That’s why you need to get a plan built on short-term things that my colleagues are talking about already – about access to ports, franchise improvements, modest improvements to electrification – that give you benefits now, while in parallel you’re developing those bigger ticket items.

“Clearly in everyday life and in businesses that’s what you do: you try to maximise the return in the short term, plan for the future, invest for that long term. I don’t understand why we wouldn’t want to do that in the transport plan for the north.”

Privatisation ‘protects rail from politics’

Yet as well as awaiting government funding for northern priorities, looking at other companies for help is also vital to move projects ahead, Hynes argued – especially to address the need for a “bigger, more expensive and transformational” solution to fix the region’s historical lack of investment.

The Northern Rail boss, who already spoke at RTM’s TransCityRail North event last year about the benefits of private and foreign investment, added that the “irony of privatisation is it’s protected the industry from public sector cuts, which is why rail has continued to thrive”.

“We’re protected from politics,” he concluded.

Using this funding leverage is essential to ensure TfN’s vision can carry out beyond short-term improvements in franchising and capacity, the leaders said.

Hynes also spoke of the benefits that the private sector brought to the industry when it moved away from British Rail 20 years ago. Across ticketing, for example, private firms began to innovate and adapt the former British Rail system and pricing structure, adding cheap advance purchase fares.

On ticketing, Brown said that the north should expect to see a first phase roll-out of an Oyster-style system within the next two or three years.


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