Plans for rail franchises in the north of England show a big north-south divide in infrastructure ambitions. Government needs to act to close the gap and make sure northern rail services get the investment they need.
The government has fired the gun on re-franchising Northern Rail and Trans-Pennine Express from 2016. The newly-published public consultation is a deliberately conservative document, with future investment predicated on low growth and cost savings. It’s a far cry from rail investment in London and the South East where Crossrail, Thameslink and a series of major electrification projects are planned or underway.
Rather than the high growth high investment strategy used in London and the South East, bidders for the Northern Rail franchise are being told to look at “efficiency savings”. This includes considering plans to ratchet up some urban fares (particularly Leeds and Manchester), closing some ticket offices and reducing services at quieter stations.
There are over 500 stations on the Northern Rail franchise alone.They serve a population of 15M people which support a quarter of the country’s GDP. Demand for rail is blooming in the north. Between 2002 and 2012, rail demand in the north of England grew by 66%. Last year, 114M passenger journeys were made on trains in the north of England. And there are some good rail investment projects, most notably the Northern Hub.
But while the demand for rail here soars, these investments remain the exception rather than the rule. One notable example of this: passengers in the North are reluctantly familiar with 25 to 30 year-old diesel trains, poorly accessible for disabled people, and there is a chance that without urgent action taken to enable investment in new rolling stock, the franchisee will end up struggling on with these ageing trains right up until they become illegal in 2019.
The most disappointing thing about plans for rail in the north is that rail is presented in a bubble, separate from economic, social and even other transport goals. There is little reference to what the transport needs of the northern part of the country might be, where housing growth and economic development might provide opportunities for train companies, or indeed, where improved rail infrastructure might support growth and regeneration. Recommendations on these points were previously made by the House of Commons Transport Select Committee but unfortunately have not been heeded. Instead, potential bidders are required to draw up plans for delivering more of the same only with less support from the Treasury.
The Department for Transport’s new Rail Executive is understandably following a safety first approach after problems with previous franchises, and the public spending environment in which decisions are being made is a tough one. But the effect of investing so little in such a big part of the network will be to choke off economic growth and condemn passengers to another 10 years of substandard train services.
All is not yet lost. There is still time for a more positive future for rail in the North to be developed. This should be based on more bullish investment and growth. It should plan for improved services, better stations and even new infrastructure and lines as part of the baseline for the franchise. There should be a commitment to passengers that fares will be kept in check and that the average age of trains will come down. Not only will this safeguard people’s livelihoods in the North, but it will promote growth and make the most of previous investments in electrification, local smart ticketing and the Northern Hub, as well as any future opportunities for the North from High Speed 2. Only this way will value for money be delivered, and our country’s regional economic inequality addressed.
Campaign for Better Transport will be part of a coalition pushing for a more positive future for rail in the North. Getting this right will be central to tackling the gulf in quality infrastructure spending between north and south.
- James McColl is head of campaigns at the Campaign for Better Transport