THE last year, 2018, will be memorable for all the wrong reasons amongst the North’s rail passengers: delayed and cancelled trains combined with on-going strikes. Promised electrification hasn’t happened, and passengers are still enduring the hated ‘Pacer’ trains.
Will this year be any better? The Government has announced a fundamental review of rail in the UK, with an expert panel chaired by former British Airways boss Keith Williams.
It wants to see fresh thinking that includes “commercial models for the provision of rail services that prioritise the interests of passengers and taxpayers”, together with “rail industry structures that promote clear accountability and effective joint-working for both passengers and the freight sector”.
The review also wants to see a rail system that is “financially sustainable and able to address long-term cost pressures”.
They are all very laudable objectives and few would say that today’s railway system is delivering on any of them. Labour is pushing hard for ‘nationalisation’ and has found support from weary rail travellers who perhaps have a slightly rose-tinted view of the old British Rail, privatised in 1993. As someone who worked for BR back in the 1970s, I have to say it isn’t a desirable model. The railways were starved of investment and subject to Treasury constraints. It could be argued that today’s railways are virtually nationalised anyway.
Rail infrastructure is owned and managed by state-owned Network Rail and the vast majority of train services are franchised, mostly by the Department for Transport, to a tight specification.
Is there a middle way which meet’s the review’s objectives? The Rail Reform Group is a small team of senior railway professionals who have developed a vision for the North’s railways which attempts to do that.
We believe that Britain’s railways, starting in the North, could be run in a way that makes less call on the public purse, takes pressure off Government to ‘micro-manage’ the industry and offers high quality, reliable services to passengers which supports the economic regeneration of the regions. A railway for the common good.
We address three fundamental problems with today’s railways: the short-termism inherent in franchising; the current unhelpful and costly separation of train operations from infrastructure; and the question of appropriate ‘size’.
We are also aware of the North’s railway traditions and historic identities. We propose a business model which, to a degree, replicates the geographical area covered by the highly successful ‘Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway’ of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
A modern day L&YR would re-integrate the current Northern and TransPennine Express services, bring train operations and infrastructure management back together, and focus on clear markets. There should be scope for smaller operations, for example in Cumbria and the North-East. Small, integrated regional services have been enormously successful in Germany and Switzerland, why not here?
Our preferred model for Lancashire and Yorkshire Railways is for a not-for dividend social enterprise, run along mutual lines. It would have social goals but be incentivised to provide value-for-money services, with a high level of employee and passenger involvement. Why shouldn’t staff and users be able to invest in ‘their’ railway and elect board members?
It should be accountable to regional agencies such as the combined authorities and Transport for the North, but above to the people who use the railway and work on it.
A return to a centralised model like the old BR – with its head office in London and the mindsets that go with it – would achieve none of that.
A railway that was really part of the North’s economy, with control over all aspects of its operation, could take forward a number of much-needed projects, not least electrification.
A railway company in control of its own destiny would be able to invest – and seek external funding and investment – for the long-term. The current order for new trains for both Northern and TransPennine Express is welcome but we need to sustain an ongoing programme of rolling stock replacement.
We think a railway run for ‘the common good’ is what the North needs. Will Chris Grayling and the review team listen? We hope so.
Paul Salveson is a visiting professor at the University of Huddersfield and chair of the Rail Reform Group.