Rail Devolution Works – here’s the proof

Satisfied passengers, stronger communities, improved economic prosperity and increased accountability – this is what rail devolution has brought to those areas given the freedom and flexibility to run train services outside Whitehall control.

Our new report – Rail Devolution Works – does exactly what it says on the tin. This comprehensive review of the improvements achieved by local control of rail services provides a compelling evidence base for the benefits of rail devolution and supports the case the Urban Transport Group has been consistently making for extending the benefits of devolution to more areas.

Rail devolution works because local decision makers can see the key importance of better local rail services in achieving wider economic, social and environmental goals. Local decision makers are also closer and more accountable to local rail users and communities. They can see opportunities on funding sources and development opportunities that Whitehall can’t – and the imperative to address any problems with local rail services is far more acute as local passengers are also local voters.

The report also shows the immediate positive impacts of rail devolution. Transport for London took over parts of London’s heavy rail network, and in the first year alone there were 12.5% fewer delayed trains and satisfaction levels increased significantly. After four years, the previously worst performing of all south east train services was top of the league, with passenger satisfaction levels at 92%. Similar increases were also seen in Merseyrail: the previously derided ‘Miseryrail’ is now the country’s top rated franchise or concession, with satisfaction levels consistently above 90% every year since 2008.

Devolution has also seen more innovative approaches to ticketing and pricing. Under the devolved ScotRail, off-peak fare rises have been kept below the rate of inflation, helping to shift travellers from cars to trains; 16-18 year olds are now offered discounts of up to 50% to provide fairer and wider access to education and employment. Similar devolved flexibility led to the Tyne & Wear Metro to abolish peak fares because the large number of the region’s workers on either zero hours or shift contracts could not benefit from season ticket offers.

In all cases, devolution has delivered significant benefits for passengers and communities. Local decision makers have seized the opportunity to improve services which they know are vital to their wider economic, social and environmental priorities.’

By being closer to their local rail operator and local passengers than Whitehall or central government ever could be, they have not only raised the bar on performance but also have been accountable for any shortcomings.

That is why the Urban Transport Group, and our colleagues in Scotland and Wales, will continue to make a strong case for further extending the benefits of devolution so that we can deliver rail services that improve the lives, economies and communities of their local areas.

The report is available to everyone, and we hope it drives forward the debate – we certainly will be leading the charge for increased devolution for our members and the country as a whole.

The government’s air quality stance is out of line with devolution

In a comment piece in the latest issue of Local Government Chronicle, Urban Transport Group Director Jonathan Bray was left feeling underwhelmed by the Government’s draft plan on tackling NOin towns and cities – especially as it relates to the role devolved regional powers could bring to improving air quality.

On the basis of the consultation draft there’s a lot of work to do before urban transport authorities will know whether they will have the necessary clarity, commitment and funding from national government that they will need given the scale of the task on air quality.

This includes key areas like the future funding regime for the greening of freight vehicles, buses and coaches; the future national taxation regime for road vehicles; and the funding that national government will make available to affected areas.

There is also a lack of clarity around the baselines, target dates and areas covered, all of which are clearly key to any effective air quality strategy, as well as to what extent the impacts of different elements of the strategy have been modelled individually or in relation to each other.

These challenges are compounded by the mixed messages in the strategy where the need to meet specific legal air quality targets is set against vague and general references to the need not to impede economic growth, without any clear definition of what the latter might mean and how this might be weighted against specific legal duties.

The ambiguity of the criteria gives national government the scope to second guess, amend and veto a local air quality strategy

In short the government’s overall approach could be summarised as delegating responsibility for tackling the problem to local government while delaying key decisions on the national funding, taxation and policy framework which necessarily create the context for any effective local government air quality strategy.

This puts the two processes (local air quality strategies and national funding and fiscal policy) out of sync. It also means national government retains a de facto veto over local government air quality plans on the basis of criteria, the ambiguity of which gives national government the scope to second guess, amend and veto a local air quality strategy. This is out of line with government’s wider stated commitment to devolution on the basis that local areas are best placed to determine the most appropriate response to specific local public policy issues and challenges.

Overall there needs to be much more of an emphasis on government action and funding given that local authorities do not control all the necessary (and some of the most effective) tools. Compliance can only be achieved as quickly as possible if government uses its own powers, takes action and provides funding as part of a wider partnership and joint enterprise with the affected areas.