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First steps towards a Northern Powerhouse

Hugh Chaplain | 07 Oct 2015 | Comments

The North of England is made up of more than 70 shire district, metropolitan district and unitary authorities. Despite being geographic neighbours they have strong individual identities, there are many deep-rooted local rivalries and they all have their own locally-elected representatives. A successful Northern Powerhouse will rely on all of these authorities to work together as one, which given the preceding points might appear a tall order.

However, I believe that Rail North provides proof that the northern authorities can work together to achieve a common goal. Rail North is made up of the 29 City Region Combined Authorities and Local Transport Authorities covering the entire north of England. It paves the way for the Northern Powerhouse, transforming franchised rail services to meet the needs of the northern economy. This means more trains. It means longer trains, it means passengers benefiting from at least the same level of quality as those in other parts of the country. Rail North also provides an excellent model of collaborative working across Local Authorities and with DfT that other regions seeking devolution of transport services could certainly learn a great deal from.

Once the new Northern and TransPennine Express franchises start operations in April 2016, they will be managed by a formal partnership of Rail North and Department for Transport, the first of its kind. The Rail North/DfT Partnership is a stage in the transition from Central Government control of rail services to devolving their management and funding to the North of England.

In my view, one of Rail North and DfT’s most important achievements is to ensure the phasing out of the ageing fleet of low capacity, poor quality, bus bodied Pacers by 2020, which like the old ‘slam-door’ trains we used to see on network around London until the early millennium, should have no part to play on a modern railway. Passengers want rolling stock of sufficient quality, capacity, reliability and accessibility which will transform their experience of train travel. All other rolling stock that is retained must be refurbished to modern standards across all routes. This approach potentially paves the way for further transformation of regional services in future franchise competitions, including London Midland, where West Midlands Rail is working with DfT, and in Wales.

What I find particularly interesting about this is that the replacement of the Pacer fleet was not based on a traditional business case, which largely focuses on narrowly defined economic factors. The case was made on the basis of life expiry, passenger satisfaction and a future need for total fleet replacement .

Transformation of service levels, capacity and quality are committed. This is a huge leap forward from the previous Northern franchise let by the Strategic Rail Authority in 2004; that franchise assumed no demand growth and preserved a pattern of services that was no longer fit for the structural changes in the economy of the North that were already underway.

Without the involvement of Rail North and joint working across 29 Local Transport Authorities and DfT, a focus on subsidy reduction through cost savings and service cuts, rather than the economic growth stimulation based approach that underpins the current franchise competition, would have been the most likely approach. What is certain, as a result of Rail North’s role, is that passengers and the northern economy will gain significant benefits from additional services at weekends and evenings, additional peak capacity (+40% in Manchester) and improved quality. I hope it will also be a catalyst for northern authorities to continue to think beyond their local boundaries and collaborate to make the Northern Powerhouse concept a reality.