Rail Policy: time for a change

High-Speed across T’Pennines?  Paul Salveson

Osborne lets the cat out of the bag

The Chancellor of the Exchequer made a remarkable speech in Manchester on Monday June 23rd. He set out a vision for a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ which could include a new high-speed route across the Pennines – quickly dubbed ‘HS3’. The day after his Manchester speech he wrote in  The Yorkshire Post: “We’ve done a lot – but we must do much more to connect our Northern cities. We need an ambitious plan to make the cities and towns here in this northern belt radically more connected from east to west – to create the equivalent of travelling around a single global city. As well as fixing the roads, that means considering a new high speed rail link….I want us to start thinking about whether to build a new high speed rail connection east-west from Manchester to Leeds. Based on the existing rail route, but speeded up with new tunnels and infrastructure”.

Reactions to the speech varied, with some seeing it as a pre-election gimmick which might also defuse some of the anger over proposed cuts in the new Northern franchise suggested in the recently-published prospectus. Whatever the case may be, the cat was well and truly out of the bag and only a few weeks later a group of Northern local authorities published their ‘One North’ vision which builds on the chancellor’s statement but takes it much further. And – I would argue – in the right direction. Let’s have a look at some of the background and what it might mean for the future of our railways in the North.

The HS2 conundrum

Reactions to the Government’s proposals on HS2 have been mixed. In the North, the local authority leaders who have unequivocally welcomed the idea stand to gain some localised benefits. Manchester would get the Ancoats area regenerated, Leeds would see Holbeck getting huge investment. It isn’t about a strategic approach to the national rail network, regenerating the North or improved connectivity. It’s old-fashioned parish-pump stuff. Those local authorities which would miss out on HS2, such as Bradford and Wakefield, have been much more critical. Many people with a serious involvement in rail, either as campaigners or as transport professionals, have looked askance at the ‘dead-end’ configuration proposed for HS2 stations at both Leeds and Manchester. Whatever happened to ‘connecting up the North’? It’s all about connecting the major cities with London, offering more peripheral cities and towns poor links to HS2, particularly in Leeds. Some business groups, such as Mid-Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce and Industry (which covers Kirklees and Wakefield) have been similarly critical of HS2 as currently configured.

We’re in a new situation

The chancellor’s speech followed by publication of ‘One North’ changes things completely. The idea of a fast east-west link across the Pennines has been received with much greater acceptance than the proposals for HS2. If we are serious about a high-speed link across the Pennines the idea of having it disconnected from HS2 is ludicrous. The implications of HS3 are that HS2 – at least beyond the Midlands – has to be re-thought with a major alteration to the plans for accessing Leeds and Manchester. In essence, HS2 has to be fully linked in to a future HS3 with through-running across Leeds and Manchester. This would mean substantial works at both locations to ensure there is capacity to accommodate through high-speed services, but it would be money well spent, bringing much greater regional benefit by permitting through running of high-speed services to major centres such as Bradford and connecting all the major Northern cities.

The One North proposition

The politics of the chancellor’s speech and the ‘One North’ proposition are interesting. Clearly the ‘One North’ vision has been under preparation for some time and couldn’t have been cobbled together in response to Osborne’s speech at the back end of June. So you have primarily Labour-controlled local authorities and a Tory-led coalition seemingly working in tandem, or at least with some degree of mutual understanding. However, there are differences. Following Osborne’s June speech we were told that the DfT was looking at an upgrade of the existing Diggle route between Manchester and Leeds, via Huddersfield. I argued back in early July that this didn’t make sense and there was little room left for major enhancements of a route already at capacity. Electrification will help in terms of existing services but it won’t give you the step change in speed – and capacity – that the North needs. It would make more sense to look at a new alignment through the Pennines.

The One North proposals have a new Trans-Pennine crossing at the core of their vision (which is wider and much more inclusive than anything seen so far). It isn’t specific about where this should be but it would be foolish to talk of an entirely new tunnel whilst a pretty good one – Woodhead – is sat there waiting for business. Using Woodhead, with a ‘delta junction’ east of Dunford Bridge heading north to Leeds and south to Sheffield – with an ‘east –facing’ curve allowing direct high-speed running from Sheffield to Leeds and beyond – makes huge sense and avoids the cost and wider environmental challenges of an entirely new tunnel. This is the preferred option of HSUK (High Speed UK) which has set out a comprehensive alternative to HS2. That said, all options need to be considered at this stage of the game.

Other Trans-Pennine routes and some risks

If the argument for a new Trans-Pennine crossing has been won, that doesn’t mean that existing routes should be left as they are. The Diggle Route is being developed for electrification and it looks like the case for wiring the Calder Valley Route is also winning support. However, things can change and the pressure needs to be kept on for major investment in both the Diggle and Calder Valley routes, as well as the congested Hope Valley line.  There is a worry that civil servants could use the long-term promise of HS3 to de-spec an already much de-spec’d Northern Hub.  The positive momentum of investment in the rail network must continue and expand. New rolling stock is desperately needed and it is vital that the new Northern franchise specification includes new build. And at the risk of seeming greedy, the former Peak Main Line from Millers Dale to Matlock must be kept on the agenda as a major strategic re-opening which would – these things being relative – not cost a fortune. It offers different things than a re-opened Woodhead Tunnel, providing a faster and more direct route from the North-West to the East Midlands – and beyond.

A question of ownership

There is one big elephant in the room: who should drive forward this ‘HS3’? Could we trust the DfT to do it? I don’t think so. The suspicion that it’s all an attempt to woo Northern voters to vote Tory next May is hard to resist. Will it all be quietly forgotten after next May, assuming David Cameron is still at No. 10? And would a future Labour Government, anxious to win support in the south, give it priority? A huge issue which HS3 throws up is the lack of a strong political voice for the North. Having it championed by the leaders of five local authorities, however big they may be, isn’t enough.  The project is a perfect example of why the North needs a ‘One North’ government which can unite the three regions (North-east, North-West, Yorkshire and the Humber). Yes, we are some way from achieving that, but the next ten years could see some quite sudden changes, possibly triggered by events in Scotland.

Ways forward

We are certainly living in interesting times. For the short-term, let’s hope that the ‘One North’ proposals are fully embraced and we achieve a consensus not only across the North but also amongst the politicians nationally. A re-configured HS2 which really does join up the Northern cities with the HS3 east-west spine would remove many of the objections to the flawed original HS2 proposals. I would argue that HS3 would be of far greater economic benefit to the North than even a revised HS2, but taken together the impact will be huge. And it isn’t just about the core high-speed routes. There would be a major release of capacity for freight as well as for ‘conventional’ passenger services which provide good connections into the high-speed network at Leeds, Manchester and a (small) number of other centres. That means a visionary plan for the new Northern and TransPennine franchises, not the depressing scenario of ‘trade-offs’ and disinvestment we’re hearing from some quarters in DfT. We need to avoid the debate on high-speed degenerating into a parochial set of demands for it to serve ‘my’ town or city. Keep high-speed as just that, with a small number of hubs in the North fed by good quality regional and local services. And let’s get on with it so that the North feels the benefit far more quickly than the original HS2 plans envisaged. As one Yorkshire rail campaigner commented “Thankfully One North seems to see the importance of acting in advance of high speed rail to improve existing routes. The need for network development is immediate and cannot wait for HS3 in 2030”.

September 1 2014


Public ownership or state ownership?

 “We live in an amazing country full of wonderful people and incredible places.  It should be everyone’s right to get around it: to travel to and from our home or work, to see the people we love and all the beautiful places we want to explore. Our railways should be accessible to all, no one should be put off from travelling. Trains and stations should be beautiful, reflecting the special place in our hearts for a public realm in which we feel free to travel as equals. We need a publicly owned and publicly accountable railway system that puts the needs of people and the environment first. So let’s make it happen together”. No, not Salvo in expansive mode but the opening statement from Compass’s ‘All on Board Campaign’, launched last week. I signed it, along with some 35 other lumanaries. Needless to say, the media, and advocates of the privatised railway, dismissed it as a backward-looking call for a return to state ownership. And I’m sure many of the signatories would like that. Personally, I don’t. Regular Salvonics will know that the official Salvo party line is for a new form of public ownership based around social enterprises involving users and workers. That sounds more like real public ownership to me, rather than a London-based bureaucracy with its ‘board’ of the great and the bad deciding what’s best for the rest of us. For local and regional services we need smaller, not bigger and remote, units (e.g. Merseyrail being as near as you’ll get to an ideal size and shape). InterCity is different and we need a publicly-owned InterCity UK which includes partners from the Scottish and Welsh governments as well as our Department for Transport, with user and employee representation. The nearest you’ll get to that is Switzerland, with its single federally-owned SBB and a plethora of small, community-owned railways superbly integrated with buses. Don’t tell me it doesn’t work. A new railway needs to be driven by 3 ‘Es’ – entrepreneurial; ethical; enthusiastic. We’ve already got the staff to deliver that, but they’re struggling within an unsuitable and expensive framework.

What sort of railway for the North?

This paper is based on a chapter of Railpolitik (etc.) but brings it a bit more up to date: a top quality railway for the North, run by its employees and users! Yes we CAN!

Northern Railways Vision

and here is a more recent (and shorter) view:

Where now for railways in The North?

I did an afternoon slot at the ‘Connected North’ conference on July 11th, picking up the theme of ‘Where now for the railways in the North?’. In typically lazy fashion I didn’t do a highly-polished powerpoint presentation but relied on picking up what had been said during the day – above all by Peter Wilkinson – and melding it into a 15 minute rant. The following is based on said rant and developed (and trimmed) a wee bit.

We’ve got a huge opportunity in the next few weeks to influence the future shape of railways in the North – and the North’s economy – for many years. Not just the life of the franchise (be it 7,8 or 9 years) but most likely for decades. It’s important e think beyond our own parochial interests and put forward some well-argued strategic approaches, refusing to accept ‘trade-offs’ that amount to dis-investment, but being open to new ways of doing things which will help the financial bottom line.

Let’s start with stations. My old friend John Hummel used to say that it would be absurd to imagine local petrol stations as being places where you could only buy petrol. So why do station ‘booking offices’ only sell tickets? If they are going to survive in the internet age, with some tickets being purchased by other means, they have to change. Away with ‘booking offices’ – bring on station ‘community hubs’ where you can enjoy a range of facilities, buy the sort of things you’d get in a convenience store. Safety and security ‘come naturally’ with this approach, not enforced by hideous CCTV cameras.  We should be talking about bringing people back to stations, not de-staffing them. Where there’s no station building – no problem! Bring in a prefabricated building, connect it up to services and get a local small business (maybe a social enterprise) to run it.

Resist losing highly-committed staff who run ‘booking offices’ at smaller stations – the Poyntons, Handforths and Lostocks of this world. Instead, empower them. Tell them they can sell other products and make the ‘booking office’ into a local shop. Change the ‘shape’ of the booking office to allow that. Let the station staff take a portion (and a big one) of the profits on what gets sold. Even more radical, trial the handing over of the running of stations to small co-ops of staff who are willing to give it a go. A lot will be scared of the risk but I suspect that some will be up for it. By building up stations as small businesses there is the chance of longer opening hours and more staff employed – not less. Involve the community as well – sell local produce, provide what meets local needs.

We need to get much, much better at integration. Long waits of 45-50 minutes for connections on ‘obvious’ flows (e.g. Burnley – Blackburn – Manchester) aren’t acceptable and depress rail travel. If we just see local train services as a nuisance that get in the way of longer-distance services, they will never prosper. There’s lots we can do to promote better bus/rail connections. Why not specify certain key flows in the franchise which the operator will be required to provide – either directly or by sub-contracting – a feeder bus link? The sort of locations which would benefit include Holmfirth, Keswick, Fleetwood, Bacup, Coniston – and I’m sure readers can offer plenty more. Community transport operators should be part of the mix.

We’ve got to get new trains for the North. Here’s an idea: build them in the North. It’s interesting that Euskotren, owned by the Basque Government, made absolutely sure that the ne trains it was procuring for the regionally-owned line would be built in the Basque country. And they did it within EU procurement rules. We should do the same. (Re-open Horwich Works! Or maybe develop the Newton Aycliffe plant to build regional trains as well as high-speed stuff). Rail North is talking about setting up a company to own its own trains. Great – give the Roscos a run for their money and bring down costs of train leasing. Don’t scrap pacers – re-configure them for tourist routes with lots of space for bikes and luggage. When I was at Northern we came up with a re-designed Pacer concept which could safely accommodate about 20 bikes and could be tagged on to the back of a conventional unit.

It’s good that the Northern prospectus flags up the possibility of a service on the Ashington Blyth and Tyne route. It desperately needs a passenger service and we need a vision – hopefully it will be there in the ‘Long term rail Strategy’ when finally launched in the Autumn – for new routes and new services. Lets’ look at better east – west links via Wakefield and Castleford, for example. For the longer term, I agree with George: let’s build HS3 – but look at a range of options, and not expect too much of the already congested (and slow) Diggle route. Woodhead must be part of the mix.

The franchise itself has got to be – as Peter and DfT colleagues stress – of i a different kind, acting in a way that will be really transformational. I’m glad that Serco and Abellio are going their separate ways – I don’t think joint ventures work. But why not look at partnerships with smaller entities – co-ops and other social enterprises – which would really add value to a more conventional bidders’ approach. We need to combine the conventional commercial skills which are well-honed by the ‘usual suspects’ with creativity, social responsibility and sheer bloody enthusiasm. Listen to what the civil servants are saying – the usual sort of bid will fail. Look at ways of freeing up creativity and responsibility at all levels. Northern is a huge franchise covering a massive area. Decentralise. Give local managers – and all employees – real responsibility to try things, make mistakes, do things differently.

And the decapod in the shed: paying for it all. To start with, the North doesn’t get its fair share of spending on transport anyway so I reject the idea that we are subsidy junkies. But OK, lets’ find ways of generating more income. I’ve said endlessly that Northern is generally poor at revenue collection. Tightening up on that will help. Look at new products which make money – heritage railways are pretty good at doing this. Be more entrepreneurial.  On-train staff could do more and we need to have a debate about what the future role of a conductor should be, with a change of emphasis from operational to commercial. There are all sorts of good reasons for keeping a second person on the train and passenger security is a critical one. I’d be quite happy to hand over responsibility for opening and closing doors to the driver if it can be done safely, allowing the conductor to get on with passenger assistance.

So it’s in our hands. I think DfT and Rail North are taking the consultation seriously and are looking for good ideas which can be delivered. My top five points would be:

  • Encourage bidders to have ‘social enterprise’ partners in the actual bid who can help shape the ‘sustainability’ and ‘community’ parts of the franchise
  • The ITT should specify that within the first three years of the franchise the operator shall have at least 30 new partnerships with small businesses or social enterprises at stations
  • Come up with imaginative proposals for suitable uses for the ‘Pacer’ fleet and build new trains here in the North
  • Suggest ways in which staff at all levels can be given greater responsibility, with local budgets
  • Identify at least 10 train/bus flows that will form a part of the franchise agreement with dedicated connecting services to particular off-rail locations

Bring back the carthorse? (July 2013)

This is from the July issue of ‘Chartist‘ magazine – my ‘Points and Crossings’ column

Train cranks such as myself were treated to an entire evening of railway indulgence recently, on BBC Parliament Channel’s ‘Beeching Night’. I must say the idea of spending even a few minutes with the smug southern-English bourgeois would turn my stomach. Yet the programme itself was a pretty good ‘political history’ of railways since Beeching descended with his axe in 1963, giving the Tory Government the justification it needed to close hundreds of stations and cut dozens of lines. What stood out was the helplessness (at best) and connivance (at worst) by British Rail management in the destruction of their own industry. The interview with BR’s Peter Parker, a talented and committed public sector leader  in the 1970s, was very revealing. He desperately wanted investment for the railways but faced a succession of hapless transport ministers asking him to ‘make do and mend’. The Treasury wasn’t willing to provide the money.

So why are so many people on the left now calling for railways to return to the structure we had back then, with its short-termism, cash constraints and lack of vision? It’s depressing that the best we can do in terms of a future model of socialist enterprise is to argue for a return to flawed form of public ownership, where all power rested with civil servants. Recently, the TUC published a report on rail – The Great Train Robbery – which shows exactly what is wrong with our railways today. It was written by prof. Karel Williams of Manchester University and shows that pretty much all of the John major Government’s hopes for a privatised railway have been dashed. It costs far too much, competition is on-existent. There has been precious little innovation, trains are over-crowded and the system is set up in such a way that private sector investment is discouraged. So far so good. Yet when the report’s author gets on to what might replace it, we’re back to the same old recipes. Professor Williams suggests that “It would make sense to abolish the train operating companies and it would cost the taxpayer nothing if it were done as the franchises expired. Train and track operation could then be integrated under a new not-for-profit company, National Rail, under cash constraints which enforced operating efficiency.”

Much of which, frankly, is tosh. Yes it makes sense to progressively re-structure the franchises as they come up for renewal – it would cost nothing – but to lump them all back together in what is essentially a BR mk 2 – with all its attendant ‘cash constraints’ – is a case of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

The few success stories of rail privatisation have shown two main characteristics. The first is they’re small. The best performing companies in terms of passenger satisfaction are the tiny open access operators like Hull Trains and Grand Central and the smaller franchises such as Merseyrail, Chiltern Railways, TransPennine Express, c2c and London Overground. The other success factor shared by most of these is a degree of stability. Merseyrail has a 25-year franchise and it’s with the local passenger transport executive Merseyrtavel, not the Department for Transport. London Overground’s relationship with Transport for London has led to a remarkable growth in London’s local rail network.  ScotRail, whose franchise is managed by the Scottish Government, is another good performing operator serving a distinct market. The other success story has been freight. Whilst German Rail-owned DB Schenker dominates the market, there are other smaller companies who have developed successful niches.  They can plan for the long-term, own their own traction and are not tied to Department for Transport constraints.

The lessons for all this should be clear. Rail, like so many other enterprises (public or private), performs best when the business unit is small, operating within a long-term framework which encourages enterprise. Much of this is counter-intuitive to the left, as well as civil servants. You might get some ‘economies of scale’ by lumping everything together into one single organisation – like Network Rail, which manages infrastructure – but what you lose is the creativity and dynamism which our railways have got plenty of. In the long run, you are worse off.

The way forward is pretty obvious. The railways need small business units which relate to a  distinct market; in the case of regional services, that means areas of sufficient size to maximise network benefits but small enough to have real focus. Based on the success of local rail in London and Merseyside, services should be accountable to regional authorities, not the DfT. InterCity is different, covering a UK network; there are sensible arguments for re-constituting it as a single organisation but keeping devolved business units for its main routes (e.g. east and West Coast, Great Western, Cross Country).

We’ve got to resist the temptation to veer back to state ownership. We don’t need a return to the carthorse. Both regional and InterCity services could be operated as social enterprises, with profits recycled back into the business, not into shareholders’ pockets. A new model of a socially-owned train company could be created whose ownership is shared by both workers and users.

My book Railpolitik: bringing railways back to communities is published by Lawrence and Wishart (see books etc.)

Take a look at these…..

Time for a New Approach to Local Franchising Rail Pro

Prospects for Rail in the North

Feeling’s Mutual ACoRP Lewes Fe 2011

The Sustainable Branch Line

Beyond Microfranchising

Railway Doctor Response to Franchising Review version 97