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Rail devolution stalls in the West Midlands as leaders seek talks

Rail leaders in the West Midlands are still seeking talks with transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin to press their case for devolution of rail franchising, after the DfT rejected their initial case to take full control.

Cllr Roger Lawrence, leader of Wolverhampton City Council, who has been leading the push for devolution on behalf of 14 authorities in the region, wrote to McLoughlin, saying: “The proposition and business case have been developed at significant cost, and having worked with your officials on the detail we were very disappointed to learn that while you remain supportive of devolution that an incremental approach is now preferred…This means devolution to the West Midlands is likely to be post 2017.”

West Midlands Rail’s proposal was for the DfT to devolve the West Midlands local rail services currently operated by London Midland, serving routes stretching from Northampton and Stratford upon Avon in the east to Shrewsbury and Hereford in the west, and from Redditch in the south to Rugeley and Lichfield and Nuneaton in the north. (Map above shows the proposed routes, in blue, that West Midlands Rail would control)

West Midlands Rail would assist in the procurement of the new franchise and control the management of it, after the current franchise expires in June 2017. They would have become the franchising body that specifies local passenger service standards and performance indicators to be achieved by rail operators.

The DfT would have retained control of the long distance elements.

But McLoughlin said in a letter that he was concerned at the plans to split the franchise into a West Midlands operation plus a long-distance once, and the costs that could accrue from this.

He added: “We consider that a phased approach to handing over responsibility to a devolved body is preferable to a West Midlands body taking full responsibility from day one.”

He also opposed plans for revenue risk to rest with councils and said this should instead be for the rail franchise operator concerned. McLoughlin added that he would welcome the opportunity to meet with members of the Integrated Transport Authority (ITA) and local authorities before a proposal is finalised. He added that the DfT would be in touch shortly to make the “necessary arrangements”

A spokesman for West Midlands Rail told RTM that they are still strong supporters of rail devolution and are keen to progress it in the West Midlands.

“We look forward to our meeting with the minster where we can discuss the proposition, business case and work towards a successful outcome for the West Midlands,” said the spokesperson.

West Midlands transport bodies, including Centro, have been pushing for greater control of franchising in their area since at least 2012, when the DfT opened its consultation into devolution.

There have been suggestions that the ministerial team then in place at the DfT, including Lib Dem Norman Baker, was more minded to back devolution than the ministers now. Indeed, at a conference in 2012 attended by RTM, Baker said: “The move towards devolution and localism is not a fad, not a sound bite or a headline. It is absolutely serious, and as far as I’m concerned, a one-way street.”

After the devolution consultation, then-rail minister Simon Burns said: “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.”

West Midlands Rail’s counterpart in northern England, Rail North, which is pressing for more control of franchising by the northern cities and councils, has entered a ‘partnership’ with the DfT over franchising.

Although the old Central Trains franchise had Centro as a joint signatory, the London Midland franchise did not.

Shadow transport minister Lilian Greenwood MP recently praised the West Midlands Rail plans as “exciting, very well developed and about getting a better deal for passengers”.

More RTM coverage of rail franchise devolution:

Rail North wins DfT partnership for franchising – but not control

‘Don’t merge Northern and Transpennine franchises’ – Steve Scrimshaw

Rail franchising devolution ‘has stalled’

DfT not ready to commit to franchise devolution

A rail strategy for the North of England

Transport funding devolution a risk – MPs

Rail in the North

Centro pushes for local rail control

Support for greater rail devolution

Rail services run from town halls, not Whitehall

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