This is what a senior northern transport expert says is needed to get Yorkshire's railways back on track

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There is no silver bullet for the North's railway woes, where a congested network, short-formed trains and old, unreliable rolling stock have combined to inflict misery on the region's luckless commuters.

But the coming weeks could be the start of a process that sees change finally arrive, albeit rather later than scheduled.

David Hoggarth, Rail North Director for Transport for the North. Pic: Gary Longbottom

David Hoggarth, Rail North Director for Transport for the North. Pic: Gary Longbottom

The Government's decision on the high speed HS2 scheme will grab the headlines, but the imminent results of root-and-branch review of the railway industry by former British Airways boss Keith Williams will likely have implications which are even more far-reaching.

Mr Williams' review, which will be turned into a White Paper with a view to being made law, is expected to bring an end to the franchising system where companies bid to the Government for the right to run services around the country.

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And sitting in his offices in Leeds and Manchester, Transport for the North's (TfN) Rail North Director David Hoggarth will be among those watching with interest to see what system replaces it.

Beverley-born Mr Hoggarth commutes in from Harrogate to Leeds and Manchester, so feels "the pain and the passion of wanting to improve things".

After 20 years working in the public sector in West Yorkshire, including as the combined authority's lead on rail strategy, he now leads the pan-northern body's efforts to improve rail services which have suffered from decades of under-investment.

Though rail only represents 3.4 per cent of commuter journeys in the North, the number of journeys has trebled in recent years. "The fact that it's still only a very small proportion of people's commuting means that there is so much more potential", says Mr Hoggarth.

"TfN's long term plan is to really build on that, because it's such a sustainable mode when it works, particularly with the sustainability agenda and the government bringing forward the date for phasing out petrol and diesel cars [to 2035]."

But the current system geared towards short-term, rather than long-term investment, and the centralised way that most decisions affecting the railway are made, hold back the potential of the railways in the North.

Events of recent years with the under-performing Northern and TransPennine franchises, both of whom have been forced to issue grovelling apologies to customers for regular delays and disruption, have underlined how much needs to change.

Their contracts and the terms of the franchise agreements were agreed by central government in Whitehall, with Transport Secretary Grant Shapps ultimately deciding to bring Northern back into public hands.

While northern leaders can hold the operators to account through Rail North's joint management of the two franchises, ultimately they lack the powers to force any major improvements by themselves.

A lack of coordination between the operators and Network Rail, which is responsible for the tracks, means the new trains being brought in at a cost of hundreds of millions of pounds are often being placed into an over-crowded network.

TfN's proposal to replace what Mr Hoggarth describes as a "broken" franchising system is for his organisation, where elected northern leaders like Andy Burnham and Leeds' Judith Blake are the public face, to make decisions about the way services are run and the investment required.

"There's a body there that's willing and capable of stepping up to the mark," he says. "At the moment because of the partnership we're in, a lot of the key decisions and the financial decisions are still made in London.

"So it's really about saying that under a devolved set of rail franchises, those decisions will be made in the North alongside the investment decisions, so you can actually bring together the two sides of things, which underpins a lot of the unreliability and problems we've got now, that the two things are not joined up, track and train."

Key to this vision is giving northern leaders control of a substantial budget rather than having to go to Whitehall for investment, with between £60bn and £70bn of investment needed between now and 2050 to achieve TfN's long term vision for the region.

"Our long term strategy is very clear about our vision and priorities, it's probably what would be seen as normal in other parts of the country, two trains an hour as standard across across routes, there are quite a number in the North that don't have that level of frequency.

"Obviously enough carriages and trains to make sure that people get a seat or even get on the train, the kind of things that will be par for the course elsewhere, making sure that they're baked into the franchise, but using our economic argument because it's not about doing rail for the sake of it, it's about what rail can do for the economy."

Having what he describes as "pipeline for future investment" controlled by the North, as opposed to funds and initiatives the region has to bid for, is critical for leaders to be able to plan long-term for what the region needs.

But the current franchise system, where relatively short-term contracts are handed out to operators, encourages a "stop-start" culture where operators try and make investment in their services too quickly. Mr Hoggarth says longer contracts of around 15 years would mean the investment is spread out in a more sensible way.

"You tend to get feast and famine. So all the new trains across Northern and TransPennine are coming in over the course of last year and this year.

"And that's where you get the challenges of driver training and when you've got, as they've had, delays from manufacturers as well as well you get these investments compacted in a small space of time."

Mr Hoggarth says the problems of the last two years on the North's railways have been "immensely frustrating, particularly with the impact on passengers", though his organisation has in some instances been able to work with operators to improve their plans.

He points to an improved service in some areas, with TransPennine serving Redcar direct from Manchester for the first time and introducing better local stops at places like Marsden and Slaithwaite in West Yorkshire.

But what is needed now is a system that is more responsive to passenger needs, prioritising things like reliability and being able to get a seat which really matter to those who use the trains.

"What has so frustrated leaders is not always seeing the passengers' needs at the heart of this, all the competing views from the industry and competing pressures. We need to get back to a system that actually has passengers at the heart."

Back in September in a speech in Rotherham, Boris Johnson promised to "give the railways of the North back to the people".

The precise mechanism for that will likely come out in the Williams review, but Mr Hoggarth says the needs of the North are now higher on the national agenda.

"The steps we've already taken, having the voice of the northern leaders, it's hard to ignore those really strong messages from Transport for the North meetings and Rail North committee meetings and trying to hold the operators to account," he says. "So it just gives that it gives that strong voice and I think we have started to see the response to that.

"But there's a lot more to do. It is about that next step of getting more say, more funding devolved, more decisions made.

"The message I get all the time from leaders who are up for that and we'll have to make judgements on priorities, but we've got the evidence base we've got the governance to do that so just give us a chance to do it. We will then stand behind those decisions rather than being Whitehall decisions imposed on us."