Stephen Joseph: What new rail franchises should mean for Yorkshire

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HYPERBOLE is rarely in short supply where trains are concerned. The announcement of a ‘world class railway’ for the north of England certainly ups the ante, but will it be matched by the reality?

The Department for Transport has just announced the winning bidders for the TransPennine Express and Northern Rail franchises for the next 10 years. There is certainly much to welcome in the plans for more services, newer trains and fairer ticketing.

Starting with the bottom line, £1.2bn of investment is promised to improve services. Two thirds of this money will go on new trains, bumping up capacity with 500 new carriages, helping tackle overcrowding and allowing the worst of the existing rolling stock to be shunted into the sidings.

Great news, but much of this is simply catch-up. Successive governments have starved Northern train services of investment. The planned 2,000 extra services each week is undoubtedly a big improvement that will bring real benefits.

This will include more frequent services between Hull, Scarborough and York and increasing Sunday services between Leeds and Harrogate to two trains per hour. But we’re starting from a very low base - the large majority are needed to cope with overcrowding at peak times and fill yawning chasms in Sunday services. This tells you a lot about the paucity of existing timetables and how far behind they are with modern work and leisure habits.

Also promised is an overhaul of the ticketing system. Not much detail has been announced yet, but £150m has been given to the local authority-led Transport for the North to develop a region-wide public transport smart ticket like London’s Oyster Card. This can’t come soon enough for anyone who’s struggled with the existing anomaly-filled ticketing structure which still includes the hugely unfair ‘evening peak’ pricing.

It’s clear that the North’s rail services are ripe for massive growth. Even allowing for the investment, bids for the two franchises which were up for grabs went well beyond what the Government originally asked for. First Group will give the Treasury £400m in return for running the TransPennine franchise. While Northern Rail will still need a subsidy, it’s significantly lower than that of recent years and the Government deserves credit for prioritising investment over cash to the Treasury.

It’s not just the franchising process which should come under scrutiny. The announcements raise some much wider issues about the way in which transport policy works in this country and for the North in particular.

First, there’s a big issue about how transport schemes get assessed. This investment – especially in the new trains – was pushed through by Ministers over objections from Department for Transport officials, who declared that replacing the Pacer trains was poor value for money under their appraisal framework.

This framework appears to be based on some dodgy assumptions on economic impacts and future trends. If the Scottish Government had used it, they could never have justified reopening the Borders Railway. If Transport for the North and Rail North are going to make any progress, they’ll need a better assessment system that reflects the real needs in the North.

Second, there is an issue of transport priorities and co-ordination. These rail franchise decisions appear to be happening separately from other transport spending and strategies. There is HS2, which at present does not appear to be linked into the wider rail network. There is the much vaunted “HS3”, now being christened the “Northern Powerhouse Network”, being developed by the Government’s new Infrastructure Commission.

And there are proposals for a “Trans-Pennine Road Tunnel” which, if built, would be the longest in the world. All of these are being pursued by separate and different Government departments and agencies, with little apparent co-ordination between them. There’s a need to bring all these different ideas and schemes together, and link them to a wider view of what Yorkshire and the North needs.

At the same time, there are pressures on immediate everyday transport. Last month’s Spending Review will result in cuts in funding to local, “everyday” transport like local road maintenance and bus services, as with North Yorkshire’s decision yesterday to cut further funding from bus services. Integration between this local transport and wider decisions on rail and road is essential – another challenge for Transport for the North and its members will be to wrest powers and funding from Government so they can bring some order from this chaos.

This isn’t just about transport, it’s about wider economic, social and environmental objectives – the transport network for the North needs to help revive the economy but also contribute to cutting air pollution, connecting people to jobs and services, and, even more broadly, contribute to wider aims like tackling climate change, through giving people attractive options for cutting their car use and getting freight on to the railways too.

Ultimately, people in Yorkshire and across the North will judge all this by what happens on the ground. What matters is not Government press releases but delivery – new trains, better stations and more services, and wider improvements in the transport network, giving people a real choice in how they get about. We and other groups will now be holding the Government, Rail North and the train operators to the commitments they’ve made.

Stephen Joseph is chief executive of the Campaign for Better Transport.