Is a dose of regionalisation the cure for Britain’s troubled railways?

Manchester Victoria. Image: Getty.

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?

Franchise fragmentation

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.


Deutsche Fan

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.

 
 
 
 

It’s time to rethink how the British railway network works

Nothing doing: commuters await a long-delayed train. Image: Getty.

The recent meltdowns on Northern and Thameslink not only left many passengers besides themselves with frustration about not being able to get to work on time, if at all. It also led to a firestorm of criticism and condemnation from politicians and media alike.

With the immediate shock of that first Monday morning of the meltdown passed, there’s a now a bigger debate about whether the way that rail services are provided for cities needs some far reaching reform. But before coming to that, the first thing to say – and as we set out in our Rail Cities UK report, launched today – is that the fundamentals for urban rail remain very strong.

Here’s why. All cities want to become denser, more dynamic places which attract the best people to the growth sectors of the economy (including the ‘flat white economy’ of media, communications and information). In order to achieve this, as well as to improve air quality, cities are also reducing space for motorised traffic in favour of space for people.

It’s very difficult to see how this can be achieved without expanding rail networks and their capacity. What’s more, if housing need is to be met without creating more sprawl and traffic congestion, then again its rail that will be key – because it opens up former rail-connected brownfield industrial sites, it extends commuting range, plus housing can be built above or around new or existing rail stations and interchanges.

In some ways there’s nothing new here. From Metroland to Docklands, successful cities have always grown with their rail networks. And to be fair, there is significant investment going into urban rail at present. Northern will get a lot better (the pacers are doomed) and both Merseyside and Tyne & Wear are getting a whole new fleet of trains for their urban rail networks.

However, much (but not all) of this investment is incremental, or replacing rolling stock on its last legs. It stops short of the wider vision for the rail cities that we need.


What would that look like in practice? There comes a point when the biggest cities need more cross-city routes, because running trains in and out of edge-of-centre termini can’t cope with the numbers. That explains the push for Crossrail 2 in London, but also the need for more cross-city capacity in cities like Birmingham (on the Snow Hill route) as well as in Manchester (on the Oxford Road to Manchester Piccadilly corridor, as well as a potential new underground route).

Tram-train technology can also help – allowing the lucky commuter that benefits to get on board at their local station and get off right outside their city centre office on main street in the city centre, rather than piling out at a Victorian railway terminal on the edge of that city centre.

Tram-trains aren’t the only tech fix available. Battery packs can extend the range of existing electric trains deeper into the “look ma, no wires” hinterlands, as well as allow trams to glide through city centres without the expensive clutter of overhead wires.

More mundane but equally useful work to increase capacity through signalling, station, track and junction work offers the opportunity to move to turn-up-and-go frequency networks with greater capacity and more reliability – networks that start to emulate the best of what comparable German rail cities already enjoy. Interlocking networks of long distance, regional express, regional, S-bahn, U-bahn, trams and buses, all under common ticketing.

But in talking about Germany and common ticketing I am now getting back to where I started around the debate on whether some fundamental change is needed on how urban rail networks are provided. Obviously there is a bigger national discussion going on about whether the current structure is just too layered, with too many costly interfaces and too fractured a chain of command. And in addition another, on whether the railway should be publicly or privately owned and operated.

But it’s been heartening to see the growing recognition that – regardless of how these debates are resolved – more devolution for urban and regional services should be part of any solution. That’s not only because fully devolved services have been out-performing comparators both operationally and in passenger satisfaction; it’s because local control rather than remote control from Whitehall will mean that the dots can be joined between rail and housing, between rail and the wider re-fashioning of city centres, and between rail and local communities (for example through repurposing stations as wider hubs for local community use, enterprises and housing). It will also allow for rail and the rest of local urban public transport networks to be part of one system, rather than be just on nodding terms as is all too often the case at present.

The crisis on Northern and Thameslink has been a miserable experience for rail users, affected cities and the rail industry. If any good has come out of it, it is that it shows how important rail is to cities, and opens up a space for some bigger thinking about what kind of rail cities we will need for the future – and how best we can make that happen.

Jonathan Bray is the Director of the Urban Transport Group which represents the transport authorities for the largest city regions. You can read the group’s full report here.