James Lewis: Vision to improve rail services in the north

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CATCHING the 7:05am train from my local station Garforth in the morning is a good illustration of the state of the railways in Yorkshire.

The crowded car park and platform show the massive growth in passengers – like most stations in West Yorkshire it’s double the number catching trains compared to 10 years ago, with 300,000 more journeys from Garforth alone.

Our railways play a vital role in connecting towns and cities across Yorkshire and the North of England. Every day, millions of passengers travel to and from work, to meet family and friends, go shopping, watch great sporting events or relax in the Dales.

Rail has played a major role in the reshaping of the economy of the North over the last 30 years. As traditional primary and manufacturing industries have declined, so new sectors such as biotechnology, information technology and creative industries have developed. Rail has connected the workforce with this re-growth as commuting has increased within West Yorkshire and across the Pennines.

Across West Yorkshire, passenger numbers have more than doubled since 2000. But we should not take this growth for granted.

Fares rise every year – and so does the age of the trains. One-third of Northern’s diesel fleet is made up of ‘Pacer’ units built almost 30 years ago and built for the purpose of cutting costs.

However the 1980s philosophy of paring the railway down to the bare minimum needed to survive has been replaced by a desire for more train travel, to more places, more frequently and in greater comfort.

Extra carriages for diesel and electric trains and the ‘Yorkshire Six’ – six, two-carriage trains paid for by West Yorkshire, Northern and Yorkshire Forward to relieve overcrowding – are among the steps that have been taken to meet the needs and expectations of the extra people wanting to travel by train.

However, the legacy of over 20 years of a fragmented railway is that thinking is still short-term. Decisions are made to suit the length of each franchise that train companies are contracted to run services, but they are not always the best for the railway or West Yorkshire at large.

The recent announcement that trains will be taken from TransPennine Express services is down to the fact that First TransPennine Express’ franchise runs out next March.

TransPennine can’t commit to a lease beyond that date and the trains’ owner Porterbrook doesn’t want rolling stock sitting in sidings, unused and not making money, so off they go to Chiltern Railways which has a contract that runs until 2021.

Ticketing is another example of how fragmentation makes it harder for passengers to travel. You can’t buy a ticket on a bus that can also be used on a train. Metro has been working hard with bus and train operators to introduce a range of smartcard products; but only two of the five gated rail stations’ ticket machines, Leeds and Bradford Interchange, currently accept the cards. That’s because those five stations are managed by three different companies. If a passenger has a smartcard and turns up at a gated station, they don’t care who runs it. They simply and quite rightly expect that their card should allow them through the gate.

Direct Awards, as we have recently had announced for Northern, are the result of the aborted West Coast Main Line franchise process. Direct Awards are essentially short-term contracts between the Department for Transport (DfT) and incumbent operators, to keep things ticking over until the franchise can be re-let. As part of the DfT’s desire to reduce the costs of rail, ideas such as peak fare restrictions or car parking changes are floated within these Direct Awards, even though they may not lead to improvements that benefit rail passengers.

What’s needed is a long-term, strategic plan that creates a reliable, affordable, easy-to-use railway in the North of England, meets the needs of passengers and supports local decision making to make sure delivery of railway investment supports our economies by supporting housing and jobs growth.

That is where Rail North comes. Rail North represents 32 local transport authorities in the North of England from the Scottish border down to Staffordshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire.

Those authorities are better placed to understand the railway locally than London-based officials and organisations that cover the whole country. Rail North’s members already fund station improvements and additional carriages, but working together can do much more.

Rail North’s vision is that passengers receive clear information before the trip; a single walk-up fare system across the North, integrated with other modes; fast and frequent links between the North’s core cities; more modern trains; and convenient journey times, including for leisure and airport trips.

The planned electrification of key northern routes would be used to trigger the achievement of a consistently good standard of train quality and, to ensure that antiquated rolling stock does not damage the perception and appeal of the North and its transport networks.

By taking a view that stretches beyond factors such as length of contracts and Parliamentary terms, we hope to achieve continual progress for improvements and higher levels of satisfaction from passengers.

We can also avoid the farcical situation where newly-constructed track in Todmorden will sit idle while passenger trains are found to run over it, through to the frustration and the lack of a simple ‘oyster’-style smart ticket that allows people to use bus and train automatically at the best value price, which are examples of the current fault lines.

To get the full value out of the public funding, investment in the infrastructure needs to be matched with an improved service for the people of West Yorkshire – and the rest of the North.

• James Lewis is a Leeds councillor and chairman of Metro.

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