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

It’s time to transform regional rail networks – and here are four practical examples of why and how it could be done.

Ben Still, Managing Director of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority and the Urban Transport Group’s Board Lead for Rail, takes a look at our new report on regional rail investment.

From the evidence and experience we have developed over the years, we know investment in rail services can have a real and transformational impact on people’s lives and regional economies. Previous research from the Urban Transport Group has shown that investment in urban and regional programmes represents high or very high value for money, and returns far in excess of the original capital investment.

Our latest report – The Transformational Benefits of Investing in Regional Rail: four case studies – is a powerful study of the benefits that improvements in rail infrastructure can bring to regional economies. Although the case studies are based on real examples they are indicative of what can be achieved from different types of rail schemes rather than fully worked up business cases for particular schemes.

The examples include the development of a new passenger services on an existing freight route (based on the Ashington Blyth and Tyne line in South East Northumberland), the linking of two radial passengers routes to create new longer distance and cross-city journey opportunities (based on a new link in the West Midlands) and the total transformation of an entire rail network to include tram-train technologies and on-street running in city centres (based on the Cardiff Valleys).

As Managing Director of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority, one of the case studies has particular resonance for me. This is for a whole route upgrade (based on the Leeds – Harrogate – York line). The route is extremely well used, with demand increasing at some stations on the route by around 40% over the last 10 years. However, to date the only major improvements to the line have been lengthening trains and some station improvements.

The report uses the route as the basis for a case study of the benefits of resignalling and electrification as well as route and service improvements, including new stations. The benefits would include increased passenger capacity, shorter journey times and easing congestion in the major urban areas at either end of the line. The two new proposed stations would also unlock much needed new housing development potential and deliver new and easier access to jobs, education and other social services.

The report found this case study to have very high value for money, with a cost benefit ratio of 4:1 – meaning for every £1 invested in the scheme there are £4 worth of economic benefits.

The other case studies have differing cost benefit ratios but all bring significant benefits. Our report should be seen as a signpost to what can be done and what can be achieved – if brave and forward-looking investment decisions can be reached.

Our blueprint for urban transport can deliver transformational change

Tobyn Hughes, Managing Director of Nexus and Chair of the Urban Transport Group, offers his thoughts on our new report – Policy Futures for urban transport.

Over the coming few weeks the major political parties will be getting together to debate their policies for the next few years. Ensuring our urban economies can grow in a sustainable and inclusive way has to be a key part of those debates. We believe modern and efficient transport networks can be the link between policy objectives and delivered results.

Very few other services brings together – or facilitates the success of – the goals of many government departments and agencies. The Urban Transport Group calculated that in 2014 local bus services alone contributed to the policy goals of half of all government departments and 46 policy goals of those departments (41 outside of the DfT).

That’s why we are launching our latest Policy Futures vision – a blueprint that can lead to transformational change for everything from economic development, social mobility and inclusion through to creating the cities we will need for the future.

At its heart, the Policy Futures vision requires a national framework that brings together government and civil service at the national level with the urban transport authorities delivering services in their local areas. Potentially, the barriers between departments and agencies can be lessened so that the benefits that joined-up transport thinking might be realised – in such disparate policy areas such as health, employment and education.

Not only that, a national framework could also deliver real economic and budgetary goals – funding decisions for transport schemes and infrastructure can be streamlined and made more efficient enabling transport authorities to have more control over a more stable funding regime. A more focussed transport framework will unlock additional job opportunities by helping people get into work and increase the skills base of the population by easing access to education and training.

The Policy Futures vision has 16 specific policy changes we would like to see implemented – I won’t list them here, but we will be on hand at the Labour and Conservative party conferences to explain them in detail.

Our member authorities deliver vital urban transport services for millions of people  in the UK – and we hope to make their voices, and the voices of our members heard this party conference season.