Ministers urged to overhaul plans for rail in the North

Campaigners have criticised Ministers for lacking ambition with their plans for northern rail services and for focusing on cutting costs rather than investing for growth.
Halifax Railway Station.Halifax Railway Station.
Halifax Railway Station.

The Campaign for Better Transport is calling for a significant rethink over proposals for the future of the northern and transpennine rail franchises.

Ministers recently set out initial proposals as they invite companies to bid for the two franchises which cover the bulk of Yorkshire’s local train services.

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Options on the table including cutting “lightly used” services and raising the cost of cheaper journeys as possible “trade-offs” for improvements elsewhere.

But the Campaign for Better Transport is calling for the Government to take a different approach.

Head of Campaigns James MacColl said: “The questions they are asking are based on how people bidding for franchises will be able to make savings and trade off between spending on trains and keeping fares down and coping with future drops in subsidies. We think that is disappointing.

“We think they should be setting ambitions for the improvement of rail in the North.

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“If companies are going to be getting less money from the Government they should be trying to make that money up by getting more people onto trains and the way to do that is by providing good services on good trains.”

Recent weeks have seen all three major parties setting out proposals to grow the economy of the North.

Chancellor George Osborne said he wanted to see better transport connections between the major cities of the North so that together they can compete on the global stage.

He suggested the route beween Manchester and Leeds could be chosen for the next high speed rail line, dubbed HS3.

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But Mr MacColl said the letting of two major rail franchises was an opportunity to help the regional economy now.

“Labour and the Conservatives are trying to compete for who can do the best for the economy of the North of England. Those ideas are great but it is a bit conflicted when you look at the ambitions for these franchises, which are really disappointing.

“We would hope the Government will realise if they are going to promote the economy and transport in the North they need to get hold of this process because this is where advantages will be made.”

The Campaign wants to see a clearer commitment to replace some of the rolling stock on the routes which is 30 years old.

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It is also calling on the Government to to put more emphasis on introducing ticketing systems that make it easier to switch from one form of public transport to another.

James Lewis, chairman of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority transport committee, said: “What has frustrated us about the current consultation is it is quite limited in scope. It tends to focus on trade-offs on cost rather than a longer-term vision for the railway.”

Coun Lewis contrasted the approach of the Government to the railways with the ‘growth deal’ it agreed with the Leeds City Region last week which saw millions of pounds and powers promised to the area.

“It feels disappointing in that we have had a really positive devolution of funding settlement this week and a commitment from all parties to devolution where we can demonstrate we can deliver.

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“The rail franchise process seems rather old fashioned with a Government department in Whitehall looking at how we can make a few changes and efficiencies.

“It lacks long term ambitions and doesn’t discuss things we think are really important.”

The next northern and transpennine franchises are both due to start in February 2016.

A Department for Transport spokesman said: “We have big ambitions for rail in the north that will transform services for passengers.

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“Over the next five years, we are also investing more than £1bn in major transport improvements across the north, including the £600 million Northern Hub and the electrification of the rail network, and just last month the Chancellor set out his vision for a high speed network that will link some of the UK’s biggest cities.

“As part of our plans, we are asking passengers what they would like to see from the new Northern and Transpennine Express franchises, which could bring more seats, additional trains and improved services.

“These plans will secure long-term economic growth across the region and help create a world class transport network fit for the 21st century.”