It’s not easy to get the north to agree on anything, but the recent disruption to the region’s rail services has managed to do it. Such was the level of anger that on 10 June northern council leaders called for complete devolution of the region’s railways, through new powers for the currently toothless Transport for the North (TfN).
The chaos wrought by National Rail’s timetable changes laid bare the disastrous fragility of Britain’s transport network: 12,000 journeys were affected across the country, with the north-west particularly affected.
The debacle has been partly blamed on the inability of Network Rail to electrify lines by agreed deadlines, thanks to track being in a worse condition than expected. Consequently, drivers trained in operating electric trains had to be re-trained, which takes weeks. So ultimately, the debacle leads back to the old problem of underinvestment in northern infrastructure: average investment per person is 2.6 times less that in London.
This has led to familiar criticism of low local transport spending. Given the chaos on even basic services in the north, is it right that London should get Crossrail 2? Or that so much political capital is spent on high-speed connectivity in the north when local trains are in such a state?
Essential to undoing rail chaos is effective every day operations. However, Britain’s complex rail franchising system, under which Northern operates, is a constraint to efficiently preventing problems before they happen.
Why? The timetables that caused such trouble are signed off by government-funded Network Rail, which owns the track. The trains are owned by rolling stock operating companies such as Eversholt, and the rail services by train operating companies (TOCs) such as Virgin Trains, who are contracted under the Department for Transport (DfT).
Rail expert Christian Wolmar says that centralisation of timetabling for all northern rail services in 2012 to the Network Rail centre in Milton Keynes led to the loss of local knowledge, and made staff distant from the routes they manage. Meanwhile, Northern, who run the actual operations, were left with timetables that could never work.
When something does go wrong, commuters do not know whether to blame Network Rail, the TOC or Chris Grayling, leading to an absence of accountability. Poor performing train operations should have their contracts revoked. Chris Grayling, after a verbal mauling in
Parliament from MPs, did suggest Northern rail could be banned from bidding for future franchises – but this is unlikely, as fewer companies bidding would lead to higher prices for the DfT.
For answers, we must turn to Germany, where since 1996 rail has been regionally devolved. The federal government subsidises federal states (Landers) to run local rail networks.
German public transport authorities (PTAs), of which there are 27, have significant freedom to award and remove franchise contracts, which contain detailed definitions on quality of service, such as staff numbers, age of rolling stock and carriage numbers.
While most services are run by state-owned company Deutsche Bahn (DB), other TOCs now have a 24 per cent market share in Germany. The result is an “expansion of transport services” and a “steady increase in competitive tenders”, whilst passenger volume has expanded by 30 per cent within 10 years to a total of 2.5bn passengers. The operating performance of DB’s competitors has tripled, meaning they ran 159m km of regional services in 2012 compared to 49m in 2002.
A dose of regionalisation, alongside a dominant state-owned train and infrastructure operator, has therefore brought genuine competition to Germany’s rail system.
One solution: devolution
At ResPublica, we’ve long supported giving local people and places more control over their public services. When we called for the creation of the Manchester Metro-mayor post in 2014, we said this had to come with full devolution of rail to city regions.
It’s time to listen to our northern leaders. Transport for the North should be empowered to commission and run services, just as Transport for London can. Being able to set and regulate their own contracts would make rail operators more accountable to their customers. This is true whether trains are privately or publicly run.
Giving it responsibility for infrastructure and management could improve efficiency and coordination between the disparate strands of the rail hierarchy. Ongoing management at a local level between operators and authorities is the only way to avoid a repeat of the recent fiasco. Surely that’s something even Yorkshire and Lancashire can agree on.
Ollie Potter is a research assistant at the think tank ResPublica.