Passengers have disappeared and some lines serving rural areas have had services temporarily suspended with bus replacements. The trains will come back, but it could take years to return to pre-virus patronage levels. And we will work and play in different ways.
The worst thing that the railway industry could do is to assume things will go ‘back to normal’ and government will bail them out.
The Rail Reform Group – an independent think-tank of railway professionals – recently published a series of papers called The Enterprising Railway, looking at opportunities to develop a railway based on ‘the common good’.
I set out how the more rural parts of the rail network could survive and prosper post-pandemic. The core argument is that they could be at the heart of local sustainable development which responds to people’s yearning for a better quality of life to the one we had pre-virus.
Local railways in the North are now operated by Northern Trains Ltd, a wholly-owned government company. Infrastructure is owned and managed by Network Rail, which is also state-owned.
However, the ‘Northern Trains’ arrangement is not permanent and the big question is what will come after it? Nobody really knows.
The idea of learning from some continental railways, where some rural networks are independently owned and managed, has been around for a long time. What they have achieved for many rural and semi-rural lines has been better services, improved stations, community awareness – and rising passenger numbers, until now.
It’s time to think how we can build on that success but recognise the realities of how today’s rail industry works. Taking lines such as Middlesbrough to Whitby out of the current structure has its attractions but exposes rural lines to huge risks, such as the one we are currently experiencing. Some of the independent ‘heritage railways’ are facing a very hard time ahead.
But what could work is a combination of greater local management, empowered to do much more than just run trains, with the security of being part of a much bigger network.
In its submission to the Williams Review, the Rail Reform Group argued for converting franchises – using ‘Northern’ as a pilot – into socially-owned businesses controlled by the community. It’s about applying a more co-operative approach. Government support would continue, but profits would go back into the railways, not to shareholders.
If ‘Northern Trains’ became a social enterprise with representation on its board from passengers, employees, local government and the business community, we’d be on the way to getting a railway that operates ‘for the common good’.
Looking at the rural network, trains should still be operated by Northern through a local business unit which could also take on routine track maintenance. But alongside the operational side why not a development company that could provide ancillary services including feeder bus links, electric and conventional bike hire and have the ability to invest in appropriate complementary activities, including in the hospitality sector?
Part of the funding for the development company’s activities could come from share issues from what could be set up as a community co-operative. This would be a jump from the current ‘community rail partnership’ model. This ‘community business’ approach is already working with the Settle-Carlisle Railway Development Company, which operates trolley services and runs a station cafe at Skipton. It wants to do more.
The opportunity is there to think bigger, promoting affordable housing close to stations, complementary transport including bus and bike, and encouraging facilities at and around stations (post office, cafe, tourist information, accommodation). Supporting existing businesses to get back on their feet, and invest in new ones, should be part of the remit.
Now is also an opportunity to invest in the network bringing back links which were lost in the 1960s. Reopening Skipton to Colne, Harrogate to Northallerton and York to Beverley amongst others would provide much-improved connectivity in rural areas.
Professor Paul Salveson is a visiting professor at the Universities of Huddersfield and Bolton and is co-ordinator of the Rail Reform Group.
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