Ben Houchen's regional ownership model of railways should be widespread according to rail expert

A railway expert has said Ben Houchen’s proposal to take public ownership of his region’s rail network should be emulated across the country.

However, rail engineer and writer Gareth Dennis thinks the Tees Valley mayor’s suggestion that Tees Valley Combined Authority (TVCA) could franchise the services would be a waste of time.

Conservative Lord Houchen announced £1bn of spending proposals on transport plans for his region this week, which included a study into taking ownership of the local rail network.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The Department for Transport (DfT) refused to be drawn on whether Lord Houchen had the legislative powers to take control of Tees Valley’s railways, instead telling The Yorkshire Post they would continue to work with Lord Houchen to deliver his transport priorities.

The view from South Bank rail station, which is in line for £40m of improvements if Lord Houchen's transport plans are approved.The view from South Bank rail station, which is in line for £40m of improvements if Lord Houchen's transport plans are approved.
The view from South Bank rail station, which is in line for £40m of improvements if Lord Houchen's transport plans are approved.

The plans will be paid for by the government’s City Region Sustainable Transport Settlements fund. The second round of this pot for TVCA is for the period 2027/28 - 2031/32, and was increased by £361m to £978m after the cancellation of the Northern leg of HS2.

"If the plan is viable… It will probably lead us to making a proposal directly to the government for us to take control of the local rail network,” said Lord Houchen of the proposed £5m study’s aims.

“I think city regions taking ownership of their rail networks can be good and should happen across the UK,” said Mr Dennis, who lives in York. “However, there are very few places where a segregated system exists that doesn’t also run long distance services on it - HS2 would have fixed this for many places south of York.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The study, according to Lord Houchen, would “look at the possibility of franchising the rail network”.

Mr Dennis is against the idea of franchising on a locally-owned network on grounds of cost. “Adding another mini franchise just adds yet another cost bleed point with extra overheads when it could and should be run either by the combined authority or as part of an English system but with direct oversight from TVCA, with dedicated trains et cetera,” he says.

There is a possibility, according to Mr Dennis, the current political landscape could play into Lord Houchen’s hands in delivering his plans.

“The current botched post-covid Frankenstein's franchise system limps on. Northern is already de facto state operated. This means I reckon that it could be simultaneously true that this is just talk from Houchen and the Treasury wouldn't go anywhere near it and that there's a reasonable chance he scoops something out of the mess to try and get one over [Andy] Burnham.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

In order to deliver this, he adds: “Plans for devolution should be coupled with some ambition in terms of new infrastructure,” although he’s critical of the £20m plan for “autonomous trams” for Teesside.

The scheme will see tram-like vehicles guided by painted lines on roads.

“This is gadgetbahn bulls**t,” he says, referring to the derogatory term used in the transport community to describe new transport projects which are less reliable or more expensive than proven technologies.

“I do think Teesside can and should have a dedicated mass transit system,” he adds, “the existing Tees Valley line isn't a bad starting point.”

Numerous improvements to stations and infrastructure on the Tees Valley line were promised in last week’s announcement, making up £210m of proposed spending.

Comment Guidelines

National World encourages reader discussion on our stories. User feedback, insights and back-and-forth exchanges add a rich layer of context to reporting. Please review our Community Guidelines before commenting.