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Roads to Nowhere

Key decisions looming for north's rail network

Andrew Allen's picture

There is currently huge interest in the north of England's railways. Will this translate into action for better services?

From Liverpool to Newcastle, there probably hasn't been as much discussion about the role of the railways since Dr Beeching tried to close most of the network down 50 years ago. Chancellor George Osborne has been busy promoting the notion of a Northern Powerhouse to rival London and based on better rail connections. David Cameron and Nick Clegg have been trying to outdo each other in their hatred of Pacer trains, and cross-party solidarity has broken out between transport authorities over the need for the north - and not Westminster - to govern its own transport affairs.

Such mainstream attention and political momentum is clearly a sign of significant progress. It started out a few months ago as concerned noises about the need for investment not cuts for northern rail services. Now, because of concerted work by Rail North, our own Right Track North campaign and many others, it has turned into nothing less than a national debate about the central role of the north's railways in rebalancing the country's economy.

DfT's Julie Mills at CfBT's NRM event

This has carried over into public debate. It was standing room only at an event organised by Campaign for Better Transport at the National Railway Museum in York earlier this week, where we launched the interim findings of research into how rail investment can transform the north's economy. Representative of train operators, passenger groups and the Department for Transport were, if not quite singing from the same hymn sheet, at least humming a similar tune. The north of England's railways deserve investment now, and its coming.

And herein lies the rub. Expectations are high - very high - for nothing short of a transformation of the north's railways over the next decade. Government is making all the right noises, but the Chancellor's Autumn Statement on 3 December and the Invitation to Tender for companies wanting to run Northern Rail and TransPennine Express services from 2016 are where the action needs to start.

The Chancellor could make a real signal of intent by announcing funding for specific improvements to rolling stock. He could bring forward investment in electrification in line with the findings of the Electrification Task Force whose final report is due in February. He could even make it clear that Rail North and Network Rail will have the power and funding needed to lead a genuine transformation of the network in that period.

As for the ITT, we will be looking for signs that the  various options in the franchises prospectuses have turned into firm, positive expectations of what bidders must promise to deliver. That means a timetable for getting rid of the Pacers as early in the new franchise as is realistic, making sure that the cost of new trains do not fall unfairly on the shoulders of the north's train users, and that service and infrastructure enhancements will be felt right across the network. Government has raised expectations, now it must show it will deliver.