The Prime Minister’s recent commitment to a new high-speed rail line across the North is to be welcomed and will provide a massive boost to the region.
In one of his first acts since becoming Prime Minister, Boris Johnson committed to the creation of a new Trans-Pennine rail route between Leeds and Manchester, with the aim of having firm plans ready by the autumn.
“I want to be the PM who does with Northern Powerhouse Rail what we did with Crossrail in London,” Mr Johnson said.
For too long, communities across the North, including my own constituents in Derbyshire, suffered from a lack of investment in rail services with people having to endure out-of-date rolling stock and poor services. But thanks to record levels of investment, we are starting to see real improvements in rail travel in this region.
Last month saw the introduction of the first of more than 100 new trains, ordered under my tenure as Secretary of State for Transport, which will eventually lead to the phasing out of Pacers, that symbol of chronic underinvestment.
These new trains are just part of the 7,000 new trains and carriages that train companies are rolling out nationwide to support the introduction of 6,400 extra services a week by the early 2020s, many of them in the North. But investment alone won’t solve all the problems that hold back the region’s passengers and its economy today.
New rail lines, like the one the Prime Minister has committed to deliver, are undoubtedly important but what is also needed is a significant overhaul of the railway system to create a fairer railway that serves passengers and businesses now.
There are two reforms in particular, already being advocated by the rail industry itself, that could benefit the region significantly. The first is wholesale fares reform which is a critical step towards delivering the systemic change our railway needs.
Today, for passengers getting the best deal means battling a confusing array of choices, particularly for journeys that combine different modes of transport. Regulations from the 1990s mean that unlike in London, fares for journeys within the region cannot be unpicked from those elsewhere in the country.
So, while rail travellers in the capital benefit from pay-as-you-go pricing and automatic price caps that apply across buses and trams too, people in other parts of the country miss out.
Taking the opportunity to fundamentally reform fares could end this particular imbalance by enabling the rollout of a London-style tap-in-tap-out, pay-as-you-go fares system across the country, with seamless travel between modes. There would be automatic price caps and, potentially, part-time season tickets too.
As well as simpler pricing structures, train companies could guarantee that passengers would always pay the best fare for their journey.
By removing barriers that discourage travel between cities and local communities, rail fares reform could create a fairer railway and encourage 300 million more journeys with everyone reaping the benefits delivered by the increased productivity and growth that result.
But reform must not stop with fares. So secondly, we must give local communities a stronger voice over how contracts to run trains are awarded, another sensible suggestion put forward by the rail industry.
The current franchising system, where central government decides who runs local services, is not fit to deliver real change focused on the passengers and communities the railway serves.
The rail industry’s proposal to put more control over decisions about contracts for local services into the hands of local representatives, held accountable by their constituents, would provide greater guarantees of reliable service and value for money.
In April, Paul Plummer, Chief Executive of the Rail Delivery Group, which represents rail companies, explained: “We want to move forward with a rail system that is more focused on customers, more responsive to local communities and more accountable, letting rail companies deliver what people want in each area of the country and rebuilding trust between the industry and passengers.”
So, as well as supporting investment in new infrastructure, I call on the Prime Minister and the new Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, to work with the rail industry to implement change quickly now. This will go a long way to delivering a railway that is fit for the way people live, work and travel today.
Patrick McLoughlin is a former Transport Secretary and current Conservative MP for the Derbyshire Dales.