Rail in the North

Transport North: Caught in a Trilemna ~ 1 There is an imbalance between North and South in the funding of transport – where longrun lack of investment and inequality of provision result in revenue shortfall and need for subsidy ~ 2 But when investment proposals do come forward – largely from decisions taken in London, but also locally – they are usually for schemes that will actually worsen sustainability and carbon, whilst still failing to ‘close the gap’ ~ 3 Because the decision making, policy, scheme assessment, planning and consultation frameworks are now so inadequate that projects can no longer be effectively tested. ~ Our featured campaigns illustrate aspects of this Trilemna.

NEW August 2014 : see CBT ‘myth buster’ on North of England rail services here.

To coincide with the launch of Campaign for Better Transport’s Right Track North campaign on 5th August 2014 (press release here) Anthony Rae introduces the background to this third of our featured campaigns, which tackles the trilemna head on.

In December 2011 I wrote a typically sarcastic blog entitled Transport: Raising the standard of Northern rebellion bitterly contrasting the state of the railways I encountered at either end of a journey to London, and reflecting on the deep-rooted reasons why this was the case: ‘… racketing about in a 25 years old diesel Pacer trains, to get from Hebden Bridge to Leeds; a service which after 8 o’clock is basically 1 per hour between Manchester Vic-Leeds and ceases from the Leeds direction at 10.30pm. When I arrived in Kings Cross I wandered up to St Pancras and watched with astonishment and just a little irritation as the brand new High Speed Javelin service whizzed late night revellers homewards to the south coast. Running at 15 minute intervals. From 6.30am till past midnight. To Chatham, Faversham, and Ramsgate!’

And that’s pretty much the situation today, although the last Javelin now leaves a tad before midnight. Yes there have been some specific improvements arising from the Northern Hub such as the Todmorden Curve but there’s usually a twist to the tale: in that case the track’s laid but there’s no rolling stock for the new services. But until very recently no prospect whatsoever of a comprehensive transformation.

Which I suppose was the implied question underlying my original article: what – apart from the fundamentals of economic and transport geography and the ever reinforcing network effects of relentless investment over decades in the London system! – can be the justification for such gross inequalities of provision? Should there not be some basic principle behind sustainable transport policy: the principle of basic equality in infrastructure, services and choices – across the entire country? Put simplistically: That what’s good for London is good for the North as well. Which takes you to all sorts of interesting places: so, for example, if London can have Smartcard, and metro/tram systems, and bus franchising, and yes Javelins, then why can’t we? It’s a question (my blog suggested) that just never occurs to northern MPs who ought to be standing up for the rights of their constituents but – with some rare exceptions (Jason McCartney MP, for example) – don’t.

So is this about to change? Because the increasing certainty of HS2 implementation now leads some politicians onwards in the direction of  ‘HS3’ (wrongly called, it’s true, but 125mph would nice. See the separate article on this here). This is the beginning I think of the political transformation that is the prerequisite for a subsequent investment revolution.

And now we have the Right Track North charter, which begins: ‘The Government is consulting on the future of railways in the north of England. This charter makes the case for people, communities and the economy in the North to have a high quality rail network, and sets out what this means in practice.’ It lists the need for – new trains, better stations, improve customer service, value for money fares, reduced overcrowding, faster and more reliable journeys, increase capacity, smart ticketing, better connections, door-to-door journeys, and some missing links to be replaced. So it’s comprehensive.

And, how does it relate to the particular causes of my personal complaint? Well it asks for ‘New trains to replace decrepit 30-year old diesel trains are essential’ and ‘a long term programme for further additions to capacity, including improving evening and weekend capacity’. So (reading that last ‘capacity’ as ‘frequency’) it starts to remove this sort of obvious inequality, which – putting such details in a strategic context – all fit in with the proposals of the new West Yorkshire combined authority to electrify the Calder Valley Railway line (here paragraphs 2.32-35).

Which would start to be transformatory as well. And with the Charter’s ‘options for future East-West capacity increase and a “Northern Hub 2” around West Yorkshire’, absolutely so.

Underpinning this campaign are new reports from PTEG, setting out the PTEG Case for rail in the North(June 2014), the PTEG The Economic Value of rail in the North of England and PTEG A heavy load to bear (both July 2014). The first report sets out the economic consequences of the failure to invest in northern railways: “KPMG estimated that overcrowding on NT services could have already lost Leeds and Manchester around 20,000 new jobs by 2013/14, worth £500m in GVA. The lack of investment is also clear on the infrastructure side. Between 2009 and 2014 (Control Period 4 or CP4), the regions of the North and the Midlands attracted little more than £10 of rail infrastructure investment per head of population, compared to over £200 in London and the South East and over £150 in Scotland.”

Looking to the future: “Despite significant investment in the Northern Hub and electrification, the prospects are not much better for CP5 (2014‐2019), with the North and the Midlands expected to receive little more than a quarter of the investment per head as Scotland or London and the South East.”

On the positive side the second report finds that: “Taking net economic benefits and regional supply-side impacts together, the regional rail network in the North of England delivers £4.30 of economic value for every £1 of direct government support and government backed-borrowing.” Whilst the third report challenges the assumptions behind the suggestions of an over subsidised and cost ineffective railway that haunt the trans-Pennine express and Northern Rail franchise consultation documents

So this combination of circumstances is beginning to augur well for ‘Rail in the North’. But the critical question remains: what will northern MPs – and all Parliamentary candidates in the run-up to the general election in May 2015 – do about this huge opportunity? Will they, as before, just ignore it … presumably because they think it has little or nothing to do them or their constituents?! Will they argue that it can’t be afforded, whilst at the same time still unquestioningly accepting plans for Crossrail 2 and Crossrail 3, and whatever else catches Boris’ eye? And if they do light on the ‘transport issue’ for a moment will they, as usually happens, just go for the ‘motorist vote’and speak out instead for more roads and lower fuel duty (which could pay for rail investment etc)?

Over the next nine months Transport North and the environmental transport organisations need to join with others in making sure prospective MPs commit to the Right Track North. This is an opportunity we’ve not had for decades; let’s not waste it.