Transport bosses are aiming to create a locally-controlled rail network for the entire North of England, with plans to take over trans-Pennine routes also set to incorporate commuter lines across Yorkshire, the North-West, North-East and beyond.
Kieran Preston, director-general of West Yorkshire’s transport authority Metro, has told the Yorkshire Post his group has been locked in talks with the Department for Transport (DfT) for several months over radical proposals that would see control of the entire Northern and TransPennine rail networks devolved to local authorities in the North.
Mr Preston believes local control over franchises will enable a “step-change” in passenger services by allowing local authorities to leverage investment for newer and longer carriages and further electrification of lines, as well as better tailoring rail contracts to suit the needs of local people.
“We’re talking about a rail network for the North,” Mr Preston said. “We can take control of our destiny and shape our railways.
“This is about bringing a local focus and passion back to our railways. We have levers we can pull locally and a clear transport plan.”
Yesterday the Yorkshire Post revealed council leaders in Leeds have been holding talks with their counterparts in Greater Manchester over using a Government initiative to devolve power to major cities to take joint control of the trans-Pennine route.
But Mr Preston said that initiative is part of a wider plan to take control of the entire north-of-England network currently run by First TransPennine and Northern Rail.
Combined, the networks cover lines stretching from Nottingham up through Yorkshire to Newcastle, and west as far as Crewe, Manchester, Liverpool and Carlisle.
“When these contracts last came up for renewal, we said then that it was not appropriate for them to be negotiated 200 miles away in Whitehall,” Mr Preston said.
“There’s an opportunity to renew both in 2014, and we’ve been holding detailed discussions with the DfT for some months on behalf of transport executives across the North about taking control.”
The benefits of contracts being let by local transport bodies as opposed to bureaucrats in Whitehall would be significant, he said.
“If you look at what’s happened in Scotland and Wales following devolution, and at Transport for London, it has made a massive difference, because they bring that local focus,” Mr Preston said.
Once in charge of their own railways, local transport leaders would begin working on a wish-list of ideas to improve services.
“New rolling stock is hugely important,” Mr Preston said. “We want to look at replacing the 400 trains across the North that are more than 30 years old.
“We would be able to borrow against future revenue and also pull in funding from other sources to invest. We could make use of new 15-year rail contracts to take a really long-term view.
“And as the franchisor, we would be talking directly with Network Rail about projects such as the electrification of lines in places like Calderdale and Harrogate.”
The DfT has reacted positively, and is expected to launch a formal consultation early next year.
A spokesman said: “The Government is developing a range of options to transfer powers away from Whitehall. We have had very constructive discussions with stakeholders across the North on how they could have a greater role in new rail franchises.”
Despite the apparent benefits, Anthony Smith, chief executive of rail user group Passenger Focus, said the issue of who controls the railways is really just a “question for the politicians.”
He said: “Passengers in the North simply want to see improvements now to cope with the increasing number of passengers.”