Devolved rail: strategies across the UK


The 2019 UK Rail Summit welcomed over 200 delegates to KPMG's Canary Wharf Offices in London, earlier this month. The one day conference brought key industry figures together to discuss the challenges facing the UK rail network right now.

Devolved railways and the rail strategies across the UK was focused on in our final session. David Fowler reports on the this session below

Transport for the North, England's first subnational transport body, was focused on the economy and transport working together, said chief executive Barry White.

Opening the final session of the UK Rail Summit, Mr White recalled that TfN came into being just as last year's timetable chaos was unleashed. "Many lessons have been and should be learned," he said. "The clamour for grater accountability over our rail services has increased as a result. Let us be accountable and we will help deliver better services."

TfN comprises 20 local authority members, from Greater Manchester to big rural areas such as Cumbria. It has 15.4 million inhabitants; if it were a state, by population it would be the fifth biggest in the US or the second biggest in Germany – areas which have much greater devolved powers.

TfN's strategic economic plan was in effect an economic plan for the next 30 years. It would form the basis of TfN's advice to ministers and for the business plan for Northern Powerhouse Rail.

In the shorter term it was co-managing rail franchises, but financial decisions were still reserved to the DfT.

Nevertheless under current franchises passengers would see "a massive improvement in quality of journeys, trains and in the number of seats available". For passengers whose services are still provided at present by Pacers, there would be "a dramatic improvement in quality".
Smart ticketing was being introduced. Smart season tickets had been launched, and uptake was already was 35-40%. Work was due to start this year on the £2.9bn Trans-Pennine route upgrade between Manchester, Huddersfield, Leeds and York.

He asked what was next on the devolution journey.

The Williams review, he expected, would point towards greater devolution and accountability – coupled, as Keith Williams had said earlier in the day, with the responsibility and authority to go with it.

On funding he said: "We have a funding framework but we want to want to move to a multimodal devolved pot of money in the North for transport projects."

Heidi Alexander, deputy mayor of London for transport, said people in south London who relied on above ground rail services often got "a raw deal" compared with residents north of the river served by the Underground.

"How can we use the existing infrastructure more effectively?" she asked.

TfL was developing a case for "a fully-fledged suburban metro service out of Victoria and London Bridge," she said. Over the coming weeks it would be publishing proposals for how this could be done, with little outlay – initial costings suggested £1.7bn at 2014 prices – based on TfL's experience with London Overground.

She pointed out that at present a lot of people travelled by bus from areas such as West Norwood and Wimbledon, passing national rail stations to go instead to stations on the Victoria or Northern Underground lines, where services were more frequent. "No wonder the Northern Line is one of the most overcrowded," she said. The new proposals would relieve overcrowding as well as opening up jobs.

She argued that the shortcomings of rail services were evident in a range of economic statistics. For example, between 2000 and 2016 the value central and east London added to the London's economy had grown by 120%, compared with just 70% in south-east London.

The Government was due to let the long-awaited Southeastern franchise in a matter of months, and the DfT was also planning to start the remapping exercise on the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise. "Tenders for both of these franchises create an opportunity that I hope will deliver the right outcomes for Londoners," she said.

"In our response to the Williams review TfL has therefore started to make the case for a real suburban metro, and to push for TfL as the local integrated transport authority to have a greater say in who operates the trains on our suburban rail lines. We've also proposed that TfL should become the infrastructure manager for the parts of the rail network where services are devolved," she continued – this would also mean transferring some the budgets currently managed by Network Rail for maintenance and improvement to TfL.

TfL would be setting out a series of investment packages "that could result in the more frequent higher capacity service we all want to see", she said.

"I want to set aside the politics of the past and find a way to make things better. I think that across London a more reliable, integrated, accessible and affordable service is within reach for millions of commuters."

Mark Barry, professor of practice in connectivity at Cardiff University School of Geography and Planning outlined rail opportunities and challenges in Wales.

Wales had a population of three million, concentrated in Cardiff and south-east Wales (1.5 million), Swansea Bay (0.7 million) and north-east Wales (0.2 million).

The rail network reflected this, but its capabilities and line speeds fell away significantly west of Bristol. "There is not a 125mph railway in Wales," Prof Barry said. As a result the economic value of the new Intercity Express fleet would not be fully realised.

Between Cardiff and Bristol only two trains per hour ran, at an average speed of 47mph, despite a market size similar to that between Leeds and Manchester. Cardiff was the worst connected major region of the UK.

Meanwhile in North Wales, capability of the rail infrastructure fell away west of Crewe, and there was still some Victorian signalling equipment in use.

There had been long-standing under-investment in railways in Wales. Using the standard WelTag methodology to produce a strategic business case, there appeared to be potential for over £2.5bn of transport user and agglomeration benefits from rail investments.

These included investment in capacity and reduced journey times between Cardiff and Swansea and to London, Heathrow and Bristol, with the aim of a Cardiff to Paddington journey time of 90 minutes; Swansea to Cardiff in 30 minutes; and Cardiff to Bristol Temple Meads in 30 minutes.
The South Wales and North Wales main lines would be upgraded to permit a mixture of fast long-distance and new all-stop commuter services.
The Crewe hub, to be built as part of HS2, would allow faster journeys between north Wales and Chester, Liverpool, Manchester, Manchester Airport, Crewe, London, Birmingham and south Wales.

South Wales metro is under development. A North Wales metro would be created around an improved Wrexham-Merseyside line and new NWML commuter services. A tram-train based metro would be created for Swansea Bay.

He supported the Greengauge 21 proposal for HS2 to become an "X" network, with a branch running south-west from Birmingham, and a major upgrade of the South Wales main line. This would allow through services from HS2 to Wales as well as protecting the Cardiff-Manchester via Crewe cross-country route.

The next step was to move on to stage two of business case development. Prof Barry said Wales wanted to own the problem, and called for rail powers and a financial settlement to be devolved to the Welsh Government – as it is in Scotland.

Simon Kirby, associate senior advisor at The Nichols Group, considered the question of how projects were undertaken and funded in an efficient way. He said: "I think devolution is a huge opportunity for the industry," but asked: "How do we deliver a railway that provides value for money for passengers?"

Over 20 years, devolution had created more specifying bodies, such as Transport for London, Transport Scotland, and now the new subnational transport bodies. But he added: "When you look at delivery, we have pretty much the same mechanisms as 20 years ago – Network Rail, Transport for London, or we create a Crossrail or HS2-style body."

Around 2012 when he had been at Network Rail, it had won accolades for projects such King's Cross, Blackfriars, resignalling Cardiff, and others, but at the time it couldn't demonstrate true value for money, and was effectively a £5bn monopoly, he said.

It commissioned a project, undertaken by the Nichols Group, to look at how the market for projects could be opened up to allow in other players with different, more efficient delivery models.

The conclusion was that there was no market there at the time, but that a lot of schemes could be opened up to competition, to bring in consortia of funders, big US programme management companies, and so on.

Now, he said, "I do think the world has moved on." For example, restructuring at Network Rail would devolve powers to allow a different approach. The subnational transport bodies could look at radically different ways of delivering programmes aimed at bringing about the lowest cost for the taxpayer and value for money for the passenger, he said.

He concluded: "I've been working with private equity and infrastructure funds for the last nine months and there's certainly ambition there, and the market's there. I think the environment today is right for having those conversations."