IT has been 90 years since the Flying Scotsman was the star exhibit at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. Today, as the annual fare increases take effect, railway enthusiasts are looking forward to Sir Nigel Gresley’s star locomotive returning to the main line in 2016 after years of overhaul.
Today, as the annual fare increases take effect, railway enthusiasts are looking forward to Sir Nigel Gresley’s star locomotive returning to the main line in 2016 after years of overhaul.
Built in Doncaster and now based in York, it is a great Yorkshire story, but it also provides a topical backcloth to examine the crucial challenges facing the railways in this region over the next 12 months.
Proposals to change and hopefully improve the railways’ infrastructure support, today provided by Network Rail, is one of the main topics to have come out of 2015.
Known as the Shaw Review, it will examine how the railways can be better managed, financed and supported with a more effective targeting of resources.
Network Rail operates the safest railway in Europe, yet at the same time it also operates one of the busiest; the UK rail network has experienced the highest growth in the EU.
The statistics are striking. The number of train journeys made each year has more than doubled since the late 1990s.Some 1.65 billion passenger rail journeys were made in the last 12 months, compared with 801 million in 1997.
This means rail travel in Britain is hitting the same figures as seen in the 1920s, when the Flying Scotsman was introduced. But this is happening on a network half the size.
People make an average of 24.7 train journeys each a year, a 60 per cent increase from 1998 when private operators took over running UK train services from British Rail.
The growth in journeys is thus faster than it is in France at 25 per cent, Germany at 23 per cent and the Netherlands at 10 per cent over the same period. This raises huge challenges such as squeezing more and better trains on the network to cope with demand and also addressing overcrowding. But in itself it reflects a huge policy and sector success.
No less importantly, the taxpayer is footing less of the bill for maintaining and running the railways.
Fares income covers the £9.5bn annual cost of train services, with Government support being used to fund infrastructure.
The average price paid per passenger mile has increased by 6.7 per cent, adjusted for inflation since the mid-1990s, and the profit made by operators has fallen from 3.6 per cent of revenue in 1997 to 2.3 per cent last year.
Consequently, the demand for better services has been growing, with rail passengers consistently complaining about annual price rises and overcrowding.
When John Major privatised the railway, he promised three things: competition, innovation and investment.
He said competition would drive innovation and investment, but there is still too little on-track competition.
The new body which emerges from the Network Rail review must therefore better encourage and deliver greater third party investment into rail infrastructure and decide how to make the most effective use of that investment.
The potential here for the North and the Government’s Northern Powerhouse ambitions is clear, especially as the Government prepares to deliver on more devolution of power for the region. Why shouldn’t local authorities have more influence on future rail services?
Against initial Whitehall opposition, new open access services, which compete with franchises across the North such as Grand Central and Hull Trains, are enthusiastically supported by local authorities in the North for the services they deliver.
These train companies have grown new markets at their own risk; they have a growing and loyal passenger base. More regional powers can and should encourage more open access rail services.
It is important to remember that local authorities and devolved bodies in the North can speak for and represent passengers and communities; Whitehall civil servants cannot.
Those in the South East have always benefited from their transport network being the one used by the very mandarins and policy-makers in charge of it; consequently, they have enjoyed almost blind attention and support.
More devolution can help rebalance this anomaly. It should also lead to more innovation and collaboration on ticketing and fares; a contactless ‘Oyster’ card for the North is years overdue.
Outside of the South East, Britain’s railways are still too reliant on almost Victorian ideas, such as paper tickets and outdated infrastructure. Smart ticketing and the Oyster card have been working in London for nearly 15 years, but there has been no policy drive to deploy it elsewhere. This must now change. Some Londoners would argue that even Oyster is now obsolete.
There are still stretches of the North’s rail network with ancient pull-lever signalling and elderly out of date track layout. This leads to congestion and delays as the railways grow.
Electrification, modern signalling and better track designs will allow for faster, longer and better trains. This also applies to rail freight, which has huge potential. George Osborne is right to believe that better railways are key to delivering his Northern Powerhouse ambitions.
If there are five priorities for the railways in 2016 they have to be: delivering more on-track competition; encouraging more innovation; real devolution of rail powers; clear progress on rail electrification; and fewer committees and working groups.
A growing railway is a nice problem to have, but never under-estimate Whitehall’s ability to get in the way.
Tony Lodge is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies and author of Rail’s Second Chance – putting competition back on track published by the Centre for Policy Studies.