The path towards rail devolution in the north

An increasingly common topic appearing in the news is devolution. There are more and more devolution deals happening in the UK, both for combined authority areas and in the transport sector. More recently, discussion has increasingly been about devolution in the rail sector. A report by the Urban Transport Group released in July 2017 found that devolving powers for rail on the London Overground, in Scotland and Merseyside has resulted in an increase in passenger satisfaction and service reliability.

Rail North is an example of how devolution can work in rail. Still in the early stages, Rail North is an organisation which creates a mechanism through which local, economic and geographic knowledge can be used to encourage regional economic growth and inform franchising and investment decisions in the north of England. Through working closely with the rail communities in the north, we are able to direct investment in our rail network to where it is needed most.

How did Rail North come about?

The Department for Transport and Rail North worked together to develop a plan for devolution of rail services – in 2015 this joint planning resulted in the creation of Rail North Ltd and the development of the first Long Term Rail Strategy for the north of England. Using local knowledge during the refranchising process allowed us to specify two positive and growth-led franchises, rather than the no-growth rail franchises that the north of England is used to, and has proved to be a major step forward in the devolution of rail franchise management for the north.

So how does this work in practice?

There are 25 local transport authority members of Rail North, whose role is to represent the local authority and contribute their local knowledge. This enables Rail North to represent these authorities in the development of plans, investments and the on-going improvement of train services in the north of England. The ambitious Long Term Rail Strategy has been developed with our partners, creating the first joined-up rail strategy for the north of England.

Rail North has secured and is jointly managing two transformational and investment-led rail franchises with the Department for Transport, using our local knowledge and working closely with partners to secure the best outcomes for our region. The Northern and TransPennine Express franchises brought forward a £1.2 billion investment in rail services in the north, introducing new and modernised trains, more seats, additional services and more station investment.

Since the start of these franchises, in 2015, we have already seen a significant amount of improvements, including new and upgraded trains on our tracks and extra services added in areas with high demand. The franchises are committed to delivering a transformation in rail services by 2020, including over 500 new carriages and nearly 800 upgraded carriages, the introduction of wi-fi and information system, discounted fares for 16-18 year olds, improvements in catering, and extra services, providing extra connections across the north of England.

We have also helped to introduce collaborative joint-industry working, working as a senior stakeholder on the TransPennine Route Upgrade scheme to help develop plans, and working closely with Network Rail, the Department for Transport, and train operators through the development of the Great North Rail Project work – which has seen recent successes such as the first rail services travelling over the Ordsall Chord, which links the three major Manchester stations for the first time, and the enhancement of major infrastructure along the Blackpool to Preston railway line including signal upgrading and lengthening of platforms. This joint industry approach in the north has allowed for more efficient planning of work, effective communication throughout the industry, and working together to ensure that customers across the north see the most benefit possible out of these enhancements.

What’s next?

When Transport for the North becomes a Sub-national Transport Body this year Rail North will merge with the organisation. This provides a unique opportunity to join up planning for ‘track and train’ so that train service solution can be developed and implemented alongside infrastructure development.

Rail North will continue to manage the rail franchises and drive investment for rail in the north. We will help shape Transport for the North’s Strategic Transport Plan through an update of our Long Term Rail Strategy, both of which are being launched for consultation early in 2018, and looks at investment in railway infrastructure during the short-term through to the long-term (2050). This update of the Long Term Rail Strategy will have more of local focus, putting customers at it’s heart, as well as taking into account the high speed infrastructure schemes proposed including High Speed 2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail.

This step forward in rail devolution is just the start and we hope to encourage more local and regional rail investment where it’s needed, supporting economic growth as well as improved rail passenger experiences, and bring greater control over rail to the north of England.

The updated draft of the Long Term Rail Strategy has been launched today alongside the draft Strategic Transport Plan for consultation. To stay up-to-date please visit:

David Hoggarth, Director, Rail North

Treasures of the Urban Transport Group YouTube archive

Many rainy lunchtimes in the making, we are proud to present the treasures of the UTG YouTube archive…

YouTube is stuffed with archive train videos – there’s less out there on the buses, trams, ferries, trams and transit systems of our big regional cities. Well let me rephrase that – there’s less out there that’s interesting! But we’ve hunted down what we could find. So why not spend one of your rainy lunchtimes by joining us in an exploration of a world where people smoked at all times – including on wooden underground trains; where transport systems were built by men whose safety gear was flared trousers and check shirts, and of course a fag; and where pageants and festivals were held where grateful citizens would celebrate new rail connections.

We begin our tour in Liverpool with the wondrous Liverpool Overhead Railway. The world’s first overhead electric railway that glided over streets crowded with rail and road traffic from the UK’s second busiest port. Worn out by corrosion, wartime bombs and continuous use it was closed in 1956 and demolished the year after. It lives on however in a stunningly beautiful CGI recreation by Steven Wheeler.

Catching our breath we reach further back in time – right back to 1902 and one of Mitchell and Kenyon’s Edwardian rediscovered documentary films takes us on a tram ride through the Bradford of over a century ago. A double decker time machine on steel rails through streets of behatted cyclists and horse drawn goods wagons.

Five years before those scenes were filmed, the Glasgow Subway got some new trains. In the 1970s they were still running! Here a whimsical and comprehensive effort from 1977 to mark its last day before modernisation – complete with a set of characters as eccentric as the system itself. There’s also some needling questions by the Edinburgh presenter about Glasgow’s perceived shortcomings (I’m not getting involved!).

‘Last day’ films are a staple of the transport film documentary genre – and one of the best ones ever made was about the last day of Glasgow’s trams. ‘Nine Dalmuir West’ is a free wheeling, hand held grainy, black and white elegy to the last days of a tram system that was loved by the city – but not loved enough to buck the trend and spend the money to renew it. The film has all the latent restless energy of the early Sixties which was about to change British cities forever. And for all the fondness for the tram – it wasn’t going to be part of this new world. But the trams went out in style with one hell of a party in the tram depot on the last night (shown near the end of the film). And those women tram drivers are cool (they were out of a job too as the Corporation wouldn’t let them drive buses!). The men wearing their caps like guardsmen also cut a dash.

There’s a more stilted farewell to Sheffield’s trams in this 1960 documentary. The relentlessly chirpy, mustn’t grumble, know my place, tram driver narrator makes you want to clatter him with a tram pole after a while – but another steel railed, double decker, time machine. And a vivid reminder of what British cities were too quick to get rid of – especially the routes with dedicated tracks of their own. Though in the shots of the trams passing Sheffield’s new concrete and glass shopping centres you can see how the tram must have seemed like some elderly embarrassing relative that you may be fond of but now needed to be shuffled off to the retirement home as soon as was seemly.

Before we move on from the demise of the Tram here’s Alan Bennett’s closing words to a forward to ‘A Nostalgic Look at Leeds Trams since 1950’ by Graham Twidale:

‘Buses have never inspired the same affection, too comfortable and cushioned to have a moral dimension. Trams were bare and bony, transport reduced to its basic elements, and they had a song to sing, which buses never did. I was away at university when they started to phase them out, Leeds as always in too much of a hurry to get to the future, and so doing the wrong thing. I knew at the time that it was a mistake, just as Beeching was a mistake, and that life was starting to get nastier. If trams ever come back though, they should come back not as curiosities not, God help us, as part of the heritage, but as a cheap and sensible way of getting from point A to point B, and with a bit of poetry thrown in.’

Time for one more ‘last day’ film before we move on. This time Britain’s last trolleybus system which was to be found in Bradford before finally succumbing in 1972.  Not on YouTube but better than that – on the Yorkshire Film Archive.

The late Cllr Stanley King – proud Bradfordian, trolleybus advocate and former Chair of the West Yorkshire Passenger Transport Authority – can be heard near the end of the film.

After all those seductively melancholy last day films let’s take a more positive view of modernization and change! That’s what PTEs were set up to do. To turn round ailing public transport systems that had been battered by Beeching and hammered by the growth in private car use! Time to move on. Time to remake our cities and the transit systems that serve them. Time for Glasgow Transport 1980…

Everyone goes on about integrated transport nowadays but as the film shows in 1980 we had it! There’s even a transport pageant, march past and festival held at the end of the film to celebrate the Glasgow Transport 1980.

On a lighter note. Here’s an entertaining training film for bus crew from Tyne and Wear. If Oz from ‘Auf Wiedersehen, Pet’ had been a bus driver he would have been Animal Anderson…

And to end what better way to go out but with an all singing, all dancing finale – ladies and gentlemen I give you: Tyne and Wear Metro: the Musical!

If you enjoyed this selection from our YouTube archive there’s more to explore on our YouTube channel which can be found here

Jonathan Bray