Dr Paul Salveson: Realistic vision needed for a better Northern rail network

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IF the economy really has turned the corner – and not just in London and the South East – we need to make sure we have a transport system which can encourage the momentum over decades, not just a few months.

We need to plan for the long-term and that’s something the British have become bad at doing, though the debate on HS2 – not least through the columns of the Yorkshire Post – has encouraged us to start thinking longer term.

Decisions about what our transport infrastructure will look like in 20 years – high-speed rail in particular – are being made now. So my main aspirations for 2014 are that we come up with a realistic vision which makes the very best of high-speed rail and the conventional rail network.

The current plans for HS2 to Yorkshire are, in my view, less than ideal. We will have a separate terminus in Leeds, involving a lengthy walk to get to the existing main station for connections within West Yorkshire and beyond.

Instead of using high-speed rail to link up the main cities outside London – Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds with both London and the North East and Scotland – we are being offered three separate termini all facing towards London.

We should be looking at better ways to link up our main towns and cities using high-speed rail infrastructure which gives something to the large conurbations which currently don’t get a look in – Bradford and Wakefield in particular.

The much-vaunted ‘Northern Hub’ gives welcome investment in electrification, with the core Manchester-Leeds route being completed in 2018. But it’s essentially an incremental scheme and we need to be much more visionary in connecting the North, involving some new infrastructure as well as upgrading existing routes with electrification and increased capacity.

Again, decisions are being made in the next few months which will determine some of this. We need to get it right, because we will be stuck with those decisions for decades.

I don’t believe we should accept what is being offered and we should be arguing for high-speed rail to Leeds which continues beyond the city centre to York and beyond, with some major increases in track capacity east of Leeds station through to Garforth. We should avoid the temptation to trust ‘the experts’ and press for a high-speed network which knits the North together, not a scheme which embeds a separate series of routes which just take us to London.

A common feature of many letters to the Yorkshire Post concerning rail investment has been the need to invest more in the ‘conventional’ network. This is a view shared by many friends in the railway industry.

Both passengers and rail professionals point to the hopelessly outdated trains we’re stuck with, which eke out their advanced years on busy routes such as Leeds-Harrogate and the Caldervale line from Leeds to Manchester via Halifax. Both of these routes should be electrified, with new rolling stock of the quality we have on the Skipton and Ilkley lines.

It’s good news that Network Rail and the Department for Transport are at least looking at the Harrogate Line as a serious contender. But why haven’t they identified the Caldervale Line as well? The main TransPennine route from York via Leeds and Huddersfield to Manchester will be electrified by 2018 and preliminary work has already started. Any regular user of that service will have experienced periodic problems which involve diverting trains via Rochdale and Hebden Bridge.

Post-2018, electric trains will not have a diversionary route for either planned or unplanned disruption and there will not be spare diesel trains lying around ‘just in case’. The huge growth that has taken place on the Caldervale Line is now being stymied because of lack of capacity; the whole route needs upgrading.

Politicians on both sides of the Pennines need to raise their voices much more loudly to ensure that the Caldervale Line is a priority, not just a long-term aspiration. Decisions should be taken in 2014 to electrify what was the first railway through the Pennines, engineered by that early visionary for electrified railways, George Stephenson.

Governance structures for transport remain inadequate, with far too much power resting with civil servants in London.

During 2014, I would like to see the agreement between the ‘Rail North’ consortium of local authorities and the Department for Transport in London developing as a creative partnership in which the civil servants recognise that the Northern transport authorities have a far better knowledge than they do of what the needs are up here.

The franchises for both Northern Rail and TransPennine Express will be coming up for renewal in 2016 and that means that 2014 will be the time to get the specification right. I would like to see the ‘invitation to tender’ being 
open to new entrants to the market including greater encouragement to co-operatives and social enterprises who will invest profits back into the railway and not export them to foreign state-owned railways or private shareholding groups.

A good ‘quick win’ for 2014 would be to allow UK Government-owned ‘Directly Operated Railways’ the freedom to bid for franchises. They have proved themselves capable of running East Coast and it is only political dogma which prevents them from competing with the private sector.

Bus use across most of the UK outside London (which has its own system of regulation) continues to decline. Many rural bus services have disappeared and an unseen ‘Beeching of the buses’ is taking place. The humble country bus should be rescued from oblivion and that means local authorities having the resources to support bus networks based on regular timetabled services, with ‘demand responsive’ (i.e. dial a ride) being complementary to them, not a substitute.

One of the most effective ways of improving the health and well-being of our communities is through speed restraint on local roads.

Many local authorities have introduced 20 mph limits in residential areas and lives have been saved. Almost as important is re-creating public space in which people feel safe and comfortable to walk and cycle, instead of being in fear of their lives from speeding traffic. It costs very little to do and just needs political courage.

My final hope is that the Yorkshire Post will continue to lobby hard for the transport and economic needs of the region and remind politicians in the ‘Westminster Bubble’ that there is growing resentment up here at the widening gap in investment between London and the North which urgently needs reversing.

Happy new year!

* Dr Paul Salveson is visiting professor in transport and logistics at the University of Huddersfield and a board member of rail and bus users’ watchdog Passenger Focus.
The above is written in a personal capacity.