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: www.transportforthenorth.com/press-releases/.

David Hoggarth, Director, Rail North