A big push by Campaign for Better Transport, local authorities, business and passenger groups has successfully convinced the Government that investing in rail holds the key to supporting the north of England’s economy and tackling the north-south divide.
Last week, the Government published its Invitation to Tender (ITT) for Northern Rail and TransPennine Express. This sets out what train companies wanting to run the franchises will have to deliver if they want to win the contract. It contains some major victories and is a clear vote of confidence in the central role that rail will play for the region.
The most pleasing success is the decision to scrap all of the hideous Pacer trains by 2020. All 220 of these unpleasant old trains will judder permanently into the great sidings in the sky - presumably screeching like a banshee round every last corner of the journey.
At least 120 new-build carriages are promised for use on Northern's non-electrified routes and existing rolling stock will be modernised, too. The messy and confusing fares structure will be replaced with a zonal system more like London's, creating something which is more coherent and easy to market. There will be up to a third more seats, with higher capacity into major cities and improvements to Saturday and Sunday services planned.
The current administration deserves credit for accepting and supporting the case for investment. The ITT is a world away from the original prospectus for the franchise, which was published last summer. Here, the talk was of reducing subsidies, the case for fares increases, and how the Pacers could be patched up for another 10 years.
Instead we have the Secretary of State for Transport, Patrick McLoughlin, taking the highly unusual step of issuing a Ministerial Direction requiring franchise bidders to remove all the Pacers from service, in effect bypassing the DfT’s narrowly drawn value for money guidelines which would have kept Pacers on the tracks well into the future.
Equally important is the news that Northern and TPE passengers will NOT be singled out for higher fares to pay for the investment. Eleventh hour Whitehall negotiations meant plans to raise fares by 3 per cent plus inflation were dropped. Instead, our recommendation of a zonal fares system will be developed, providing a coherent and understandable pricing structure. When coupled with new trains, this will make Northern and TPE a much more attractive option, raising extra revenue through higher passenger numbers.
There is still a long way to go before the promised improvements happen, and there are still many things to fight for. For example, no decision has been made to end the unfair and counterproductive evening peak fares into and out of many of northern England’s main cities. But the overall picture is very positive, and we’ll be working to make sure bidders deliver the transformation in northern England’s rail services that everyone agrees is essential.