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Report calls for new ‘regional InterCity’ network for the north

The north needs a new “regional InterCity” network of services incorporating TransPennine Express (TPE) and routes from CrossCountry and East Midlands, according to a new report from Greenguage 21.

Backed by the Campaign for Better Transport, the report was launched yesterday at an event at the National Railway Museum in York. In addition to the new InterCity network it also calls for a new, zonal structured fare system, the introduction of a regional smartcard and smart ticketing, the replacement of Pacer trains and the reallocation of track charges for the Northern franchise to reflect its actual costs.

The InterCity network “could be marketed as a frequent and high quality option for journeys between key cities, with quality connections to intercity services to London”. The report says that key elements of it are already in place in the current TPE and CrossCountry networks but several links should be added, including:

  • The Calder Valley route to better link Blackpool, Preston, Blackburn and Rochdale with Halifax, Bradford, Leeds and York;
  • The Northern end of the Midland Main Line to offer faster links from Nottingham to Sheffield, Leeds and Manchester;
  • Existing, but not widely appreciated, fast electric; services between Birmingham and Liverpool/Manchester.

The report acknowledges that the government has endorsed the long-term strategy for the north proposed by One North that seeks to “rebalance Britain”. Greenguage 21 attempt to identify the “stepping stones” needed between now and the 2020s, when the new investment comes on stream.

New Northern franchise

The first step it identifies is the tendering of the new Northern franchise, as it will be essential to get the plans for the north included in the new contract.

The report says: “The Invitation to Tender for the new Northern Rail franchise is expected imminently. It needs to set the tone for all-round improvement and decisively reject the ‘minimum cost’ approach to the North’s railways taken by DfT and its predecessors.”

It welcomes the statement from the PM earlier this month promising that the next Northern franchise will see the end of Pacers.

“In terms of Northern Rail I understand the concerns about the franchise. We all want to see Pacers go, and bidders for the Northern franchise will be required to propose plans for the removal of Pacers when they submit their bids in 2015. Those trains are going; there will be a progressive upgrade of trains right across the system,” David Cameron said.

However, the report is less enthusiastic about ominous words from Cameron which followed that statement, where he said such improvements will come at a cost “everyone has to share” and that “Northern Rail is the most heavily subsidised train company”.

Greenguage 21 speculate that the PM is inferring that costs will have to rise in real terms to pay for Pacer replacement, however it is quick to point out how this would add to the “us and them” approach of the south and north.

“When belatedly a major part of the south’s train fleet came due for replacement 15 years ago (the southern region Mark I fleet), the total costs were far higher than those needed to replace the Pacers and led to a major re-electrification programme too, yet there was no thought given to asking southern commuters to pay higher fares for the new air conditioned trains provided,” the report says.

Stepping stones

It also points out that recent economic work by Passenger Transport Executive Group (PTEG) shows that the belief Northern Rail is the most heavily subsidised franchise is based on “shaky economics”. The PTEG has in fact shown that allocation of track costs between differing train operators is massively disadvantageous to the operator of the Northern franchise. It says that “the reality, ironically, is that the Northern Rail franchise is actually cross-subsidising other train operations”.

To rectify this, the report calls on Network Rail and the Office of Rail Regulation to look at the reallocation of track access charges to reflect Northern’s actual cost, with the new structure to be in place by 2019.

The report says: “The best way to improve Northern’s franchise economics is to generate revenue by providing services better suited to today’s travel market rather continuing to pare the franchise down by ever deeper, and ultimately self-defeating, cost efficiencies in the way that has been tried over the past 40 years. The legacy of 40 years of ‘lowest cost provision’ is holding back the development of the North’s economies, particularly of its major cities.”

Greenguage 21 also believe that the next Northern franchise needs to be planned to take advantage of the infrastructure work already taking place in the north, including the ongoing electrification in the north west and across the Pennines, the Northern Hub and expansion of the Manchester Metrolink and Sheffield Supertram.

The report says that the new franchise must be set up from the start to fully develop the opportunities that these schemes provide to provide better services and increase passenger volumes, both in the ‘strategic’ and local networks. In particular, says the report, this means having a large enough, high quality, rolling stock fleet so that services are attractive and do not immediately suffer from overcrowding.

According to Greenguage 21, the new franchise will need about 150 new vehicles over the next seven years to help provide capacity and improve travelling conditions. The group also say that most of the existing fleet of about 800 vehicles – the average age of which is 24 years – need to be refurbished or replaced with an emphasis on better interiors, reducing noise levels, retro-fitting traction equipment or diesel engines that offer reduced carbon emissions.

Zonal fare system

The current fares system is a “hodge-podge” of different policies and approaches, says the report, leading to considerable variation and confusion across the network. It proposes the introduction of a London-style zonal system for the north, made possible through requirements in the franchise agreements with TPE, Northern and East Midlands.

The operating companies would work together to create the new integrated structure to be applied to all journeys in the region, and the report says the use of a regional smartcard should be implemented as part of it.

Greenguage 21 say that the existence of historical boundaries between franchises and areas should not be used as an excuse to not make the changes to the fare structures. It points to the zonal structure that exists across national boundaries in Denmark and southern Sweden as examples of how it can work.

Devolution is essential

The report also joins the ranks calling for the devolution of transport powers.

It says: “This point has been recognised by Sir David Higgins in his recent report ‘Rebalancing Britain’ and is arguably at least as important – because of the need to integrate with other regional development plans – to the stepping stone period between now and 2020 as it is to later on when major new infrastructure including HS2 will come on stream.”

It points out that in many EU countries rail provision is provided by a partnership between regional and national authorities and calls the UK “increasingly unusual” for retaining such a large proportion of rail responsibility, including service specification for the north, in Whitehall.

The report says that the formation of Rail North shows that the main local authorities, city regions and ITAs can successfully set aside political and geographic differences and work together and take responsibility for planning at a regional level.

Commenting on the release of the report Stephen Joseph, chief executive of Campaign for Better Transport, said: “Northern cities like Liverpool and Leeds have seen major regeneration initiatives recently, and we're extremely pleased to hear politicians from many parties and local government voice their support for a rail network that makes the most of these economic opportunities.

“But in order for the rhetoric to become reality, the government and the bidders who win these two key franchises simply must take on board the recommendations of this report, which offers clear, practical steps that need to be taken to give people, businesses and the cities of the region the rail network they deserve. Another ‘minimum cost’ franchise, like the previous one, would be a disaster for northern cities.”

(Image: c. Alvey and Towers)

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email [email protected]


Jb   22/11/2014 at 18:22

May we please see a return of the St Pancras - Manchester services via the Dore chord as soon as possible! This could relieve the WCML by, say, transferring one train per hour of the Euston services to St Pancras, via Derby. Could East Midlands Trains provide this service, thus competing with Virgin which at present has a virtual monopoly?

Jb   22/11/2014 at 18:23

May we please see a return of the St Pancras - Manchester services via the Dore chord as soon as possible! This could relieve the WCML by, say, transferring one train per hour of the Euston services to St Pancras, via Derby. Could East Midlands Trains provide this service, thus competing with Virgin which at present has a virtual monopoly?

Moomo   22/11/2014 at 19:58

Contrary to Greengauge's inference, there are no "existing fast services between Birmingham and Liverpool", only some (fairly slow) stopping services. In spite of this, passenger numbers are greater than those from any other core city except Manchester, which explains why HS2 is trying to link these two, hang on a moment - no it isn't. In fact it's proposing that future passengers will either have to change at Bickenhill or take a roundabout route through Rugely and Walsall. Nice one, Sir David!

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