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.

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.