Rail services across the North of England will be "unrecognisable",says Rail North director David Hoggarth, as he sets out the strategic vision of the Leeds-based organisation. And the change begins on 1 April, with the start of the new Northern and TransPennine Express franchises.
Competition from the road sector is a key issue for rail in the north of England, with commuters between northern towns and cities often preferring the comfort and door to door convenience of their cars, as much as speed of journey. Congestion on the M62 between Leeds and Manchester means the 40-mile journey can take anything up to two hours at peak times. Nevertheless, driving is still seen as an attractive option for many passengers based on the edges of these hubs, frustrated by limited onward local connections as well as overcrowded and often outmoded trains.
All this is set to change, with the transport scene in the North of England in all respects set to become more dynamic and bringing "transformational change" for passengers, according to Mr Hoggarth.
Transformation is a word that surfaces frequently during our conversation, but doesn't feel overused for two North Yorkshire-based commuters, accustomed to travelling on out of date Pacer trains, with infrequent and poorly connected services to major cities in the North, not to mention London.
Change is long overdue and much needed to underpin the Government's aspirations for a Northern Powerhouse. Meanwhile, growth in rail commuting is already happening – on an unprecedented and unpredicted scale. Mr Hoggarth says: "Phenomenal growth has been seen in last 10-15 years which traditional rail models did not predict."
As Transport for the North embarks on its plans to improve infrastructure connections between the major economic city hubs, in turn supporting the Northern Powerhouse strategy, Rail North is already forging ahead with plans to improve rail services.
Rail North was established approximately 18 months ago. It currently manages the Northern and TransPennine franchises through a 50:50 part- nership with the DfT, but its objective is to acquire full regional responsibility for franchises as a coordinated body which represents the interests of the local authorities and agencies – and hence the travelling public – in the north of England. "In time, Rail North will become the rail franchising arm of TfN," Mr Hoggarth explains. "Ultimately the goal is to have full devolution of rail franchises in the North in the same way as Transport Scotland and Transport for London."
Rail North has 29 local transport authority members, of which 11 are on the board of directors, allowing them to bring local knowledge and information to bear, and to articulate priorities to the Government with the full political impetus of the North.
Attention has focused on the imminent start of the new Northern and TransPennine Express franchises, but Mr Hoggarth is keen to point out that the remit of Rail North is considerably broader, and its strategic thinking is firmly focused on the longer term. In addition to encompassing freight, Rail North will, for example, become involved in decisions relating to East Coast and West Coast franchises as well as HS2's onward links in the North.
Nevertheless, the new Northern and TransPennine franchises are the first to demonstrate what is to come. Mr Hoggarth points to Rail North's involvement at an early stage in the specification for these franchises, working alongside the DfT in the consultation leading to the invitations to tender over 18 months ago. The basic message from Rail North to the DfT, Mr Hoggarth explains, was that "no-growth franchises in rail are not an option if we are serious about a Northern Powerhouse".
This is a message that was listened to and Mr Hoggarth professes that he is "really excited" about what is both planned and in progress for the two routes. "By the end of the franchise period, they will be unrecognisable," he says, with significant investments in new trains, passenger services such as wi-fi, and major improvements to the station network.
Under the new Northern franchise agreement with Arriva, an addition to the brand new diesel trains that will replace the Pacer fleet (due to be phased out by 2019), the remaining fleet will be refurbished to a high standard. The new trains will serve the new "Northern Connect" services.
These will provide fast inter-urban services on 12 arteries and fill in many of the gaps in current services.
Connectivity is one of the four cornerstones of the Rail North strategy, the others being capacity, coherence and cost-effectiveness. "Connectivity", Mr Hoggarth says, "is key to economic growth, in particular connecting economic centres across the North." This, he adds, includes not just major towns and cities, but airports and ports.
It is a theme that is echoed in Rail North's long term strategy document – subtitled "a 20-year vision to develop rail services in the North of England" – which states: "We want rail in the North to grow. The reason for this is simple: growing rail will support a growing economy. More than this, a growing rail network will help the North's economy meet its full potential."
Making the case for connectivity Mr Hoggarth alludes to the example of Bradford, which he feels has previously been poorly served for a city of its size. Under the under new plans it will be linked with Sheffield via Wakefield Westgate, which will take 20 minutes off the journey time. Furthermore, under the new Northern franchise, a revised timetable will be launched as early as December next year to provide more services between Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield.
Meanwhile, for the TransPennine franchise to be operated by First, a new fleet of 125mph trains is planned. Mr Hoggarth describes this as "a prestige service... brought up to true Intercity level, with massive upgrading of rolling stock" and adding new services including to Edinburgh and connecting Glasgow and Liverpool.
Station improvements are also on the cards, with a £35m investment programme in the Northern franchise, which is not just targeted on the main stations but also aims to raise the standard of smaller stations that have oft en been overlooked. With over 500 stations on the Northern network, Mr Hoggarth says: "It is not just about putting money where the demand is, but spreading investment. Although smaller stations may not need as many facilities, there should be a basic standard that is welcoming to passengers." There will be a continuing role for Rail North to audit progress and rectify any problems, as Mr Hoggarth points to the fact that if public money is being invested this needs to be maintained.
Passenger focus is a particular area where Rail North will add value by taking an overview of services. This will come into play, for instance, with upgrades. Mr Hoggarth recognises that it is not possible to make infrastructure improvements without disruption, but he says "this shouldn't happen when there is a major event, for example in the centre of Manchester". He adds: "One of the major issues is a lack of integration, and rolling stock should be viewed as part of the plan when upgrades take place. This is where Rail North can take the joined-up view."
Although the improvement of services between cities is central to the strategic plan of Rail North, rural locations have not been overlooked. Of the 29 members, only five are former PTEs or combined authorities; hence there is significant representation from the rural community, and "a philosophy of achieving consensus and delivering for everyone", as well as "making services fully part of the community". Sunday service frequencies will, for example, improve.
This is a different way of looking at projects, compared with a purely financial business case, developed solely on projections of passenger numbers. As an example, Mr Hoggarth cites the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne railway in Tyneside, a route that last carried passengers in 1964, but is currently the subject of a feasibility study to reinstate services. In an area that has declined economically and where road congestion is problematic, there is a serviceable railway through the heart of the area, leading to Newcastle city centre. There is also considerable potential for housing growth along the route. Though it is ultimately the responsibility of the scheme promoter, Northumberland County Council, to develop the business and funding proposition, there are strong arguments in its favour and it is an example of a scheme that fits well with Rail North's strategy.
The devolution model for Rail North reflects those already established for both Transport for Scotland and Transport for London, but David Hoggarth feels that the Scottish situation is more comparable with that in the north of England. The situation is quite different in London, where passengers are much more dependent on the rail network. Nevertheless, there are some best practice aspects that can be applied, with, for example, a lot of work to improve smart ticketing.
Lessons have also been learned from Transport Scotland. Most notably Mr Hoggarth says: "If you care about something in procurement you need to specify it in the ITT. If you want Intercity trains, then you need to specify what that means. Equally there will be areas where you don't need to be specific and you will get a good market response." There is a clear intent to carry this forward to the franchises for which Rail North will have future responsibility. "Although we haven't started our first two franchises, we are already thinking ahead 10 years to when we will make our own procurements," he says.
Such commitments are not entered into lightly. Mr Hoggarth concludes: "This is an economic vision or the North and we are in it for the long term. It is a real opportunity, and there is masses of ambition. The only challenge is how quickly we can deliver."
Reference: Transport Times, April 2016 Issue