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North of England wins DfT partnership for franchising – but not control

Rail North, representing passenger transport executives and local authorities in the north of England, will enter a partnership with DfT for the renewal of the Northern and Transpennine rail franchises – but not get complete control.

There was concern in the north last week over reports of delays and hesitancy in Whitehall about the devolution proposals, which prompted Newcastle City Council leader Nick Forbes to say: “Local authorities will be extremely annoyed and dismayed if we have spent two years working on a proposal that the government then pulls out from under our feet.”

But progress has been made, and a working group made up of representatives from the DfT and Rail North will put a full proposal to transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin and council leaders in the north early in 2014. There has not yet been official confirmation on whether the Northern and Transpennine franchises, the next iterations of which begin in February 2016, will be merged. The two franchises cover more than 500 stations in 33 local transport authorities, and employ about 6,000 people.

The Rail North bodies submitted a detailed business plan to the DfT in August, calling for a radical devolution of franchising powers. Rail North explained: “This proposition set out the strategic and economic case for rail devolution, and described the proposed decision-making and risk-sharing structures. The proposition is accompanied by support letters from every local transport authority in the north, the majority of relevant authorities in the Midlands, and a number of Local Enterprise Partnerships and Chambers’ of Commerce.”

But McLoughlin told the Yorkshire Post today: “What the northern authorities came forward with was a massive plan that was very, very bold. I looked at it and said – can we go as quickly as that? I would much rather roll it out in partnership. They were very content with that.”

Further devolution was a recommendation of the Brown review into franchising, and organisations backing it include Pteg, Railfuture and London TravelWatch. The DfT’s original devolution consultation identified five potential models:

1. Co-signatory status, available to passenger transport executives;

2. One franchise, with increments or decrements available to the devolved


3. One franchise with multiple specifications;

4. One principal franchise containing one or more micro-franchises;

5. An entire franchise devolved.

Manchester City Council leader Sir Richard Leese, vice-chair of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, speaking on behalf of the Rail North leaders group, said: “I'm delighted that the Secretary of State has seen the value of the work the north of England authorities have undertaken over the past 18 months. We believe that a devolved railway will focus more on the places of the north, their prosperity and passengers. The railway has a key role to play in a more robust north of England economy, and sustainable economic growth must be supported by improved connectivity across the north.”

Julie Dore, leader of Sheffield City Council, added: "The joint working between the north of England authorities builds on the priorities and approach taken in making the case for the Northern Hub and the north of England rail electrification infrastructure projects. It is right that the north should now play a key role in making the decisions about the future train services that will benefit from both these, and future, rail investment in the North."

West Yorkshire Metro chair, Cllr James Lewis, explained: “The DfT – Rail North partnership will focus on growing the railway to maximise the benefits of investment, and having a basis for determining investment priorities in future, while at the same time providing passengers with better services and delivering a more efficient railway. Additional rolling stock will be vital if we are to support an economy where more and more people travel by train to work, for business, and for shopping and leisure activities.”

The Rail North group has been consulting over an ambitious long term rail strategy for the whole region over the summer. An interview with Euan Mackay from the consultant team at Steer Davies Gleave, which produced the document, is here at our sister title, Rail Technology Magazine.

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