We’ll hand over rail control to locals says Labour

LABOUR would move control over commuter rail services in the North out of Whitehall and into local hands if it wins the next General Election.

Shadow Transport Secretary Maria Eagle

The promise by Shadow Transport Secretary Maria Eagle will put pressure on the coalition to match the commitment to radically overhaul the way northern rail services are managed.

Transport authorities across the North have developed plans to take responsibility for the Northern and TransPennine rail franchises to secure investment, ensure they meet local needs and better link in to other public transport plans.

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The Government has indicated it is open to the idea but has yet to give a firm commitment.

Ms Eagle told the Yorkshire Post: “Within the context of the broad devolution agenda I think there is a lot of scope for transport. The key proposals I am thinking of are devolution of local rail services that would include the current northern rail franchises.”

Beyond putting rail franchises in local hands, Labour is also looking at giving transport bodies freedom to do more than simply tendering among private companies to operate services currently run from Whitehall.

“I think there’s an issue at a time of tough public finances of getting value for the public money spent. We might do better having a not-for-dividend operator running it, for example.

“I’m not committed to keeping franchising as it currently works but even if you were to offer transport authorities the power to do that they may still choose to do things differently,” she said.

Public transport authorities in the North have led the way on developing rail devolution.

However, the authorities in West and South Yorkshire are about to become part of new bodies, known as combined authorities, that will bring councils in the region together to work on a much wider range of economic issues.

Ms Eagle said deciding exactly who would take over rail services in the regions would need to wait until the new bodies are established.

She added: “In principle, devolving rail services to transport-type authorities is the way I would want to go. Then we have to look at whether combined authorities are going to be the right places for that.”

The collapse of the competition to run the West Coast Main Line last year forced the Government to review the way it awards franchises and the timetable.

The Northern and TransPennine franchises were due to expire in April 2014 and 2015 respectively but they have now been extended.

New contracts are not now due to be awarded until after the next General Election meaning a future Labour government would not necessarily be bound by decisions taken by the Coalition.

With the competition process likely to start in the current parliament, however, the architects of the plan are hoping for a degree of consensus on the issue that allows them to make long-term plans.

James Lewis. chairman of the West Yorkshire Integrated Transport Authority, said: “I’m delighted to get this support.

“At the moment the Government is encouraging us to move forward but we need to be clear on their plans and we are hoping to get a decision by the end of the year on whether they will allow the next northern franchise to be let on a devolved basis.

“Having a common view on rail devolution from the Government and the opposition would be really helpful to us.”

Earlier this week Transport for London, the body which already runs bus and tube services in the capital, was given new responsibilities over mainline stations and services.

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