Devolution is coming to Britain’s railways, but John Nelson wonders how will Philip Hammond’s desired ‘horses for courses’ approach be applied?

One of the main political themes to have emerged in recent years is “devolution”. As ever though the word is easier to say than it is to translate. It can mean different things to different politicians. To the last Labour government it meant transferring powers (but actually different powers) to new governments in Scotland and Wales. The new entity in Scotland was a “parliament” whereas the one in Wales was an “assembly”. Meanwhile the third one, in Northern Ireland and also an “assembly”, was founded on an entirely different basis altogether.

We can therefore see that “devolution” does not have to mean a template application. Indeed, cynically one might be tempted to conclude that political devolution thus far has been founded on the principle of “as little as we can get away with in any particular case”. Yet it can unleash transformative effects that are difficult to arrest.

The Tories in opposition fought political devolution characterising it as a precursor to the “break up of the United Kingdom”. I guess the jury is out on this one, or to use a Scottish legal term familiar to Alex Salmond, the case is “not proven”, though no doubt he is hoping that it will be before the end of the current Scottish Parliament, by which time he has promised a referendum on independence. Meanwhile we will find out this week if the Scottish Conservative party will disband and re-emerge in a different guise. Such can be the mould changing effects of devolving power.

What is particularly interesting now is the conviction with which ministers in the coalition advocate an agenda which they often refer to as “localism”. Philip Hammond has been prominent in this regard but he is not alone. Education is following the same path through the “free schools”, some of which have opened this very week. The NHS reforms also appear to move us away from nationally determined targets towards what some see as the potential “privatisation” of significant elements of provision, not just the outsourcing of certain critical services, but the move to Foundation Trust status for hospitals (possibly all hospitals) could be construed as the most dramatic move yet in the localism agenda.

The reason these reforms are controversial is not that the move to abandon central control is bad per se (it almost certainly isn’t) but that the creation of separately constituted entities at a fairly local level could potentially open up a greater disparity in service provision, what before the last election the Tories were fond of calling “a post code lottery”.

So how does this play in our world of railways and public transport provision more widely? The two are closely related because if, as seems possible, more financial as well as procurement powers are devolved from Whitehall, the funding of all local transport modes could potentially come out of the same pot. Over the decades that PTE’s have been in existence we can trace several significant changes in emphasis as budget funding and service specification powers between modes have been amended by central government decisions.

I am making an assumption that when the government finally publishes its white paper in response to McNulty it will tackle the devolution agenda for railways. It is to be hoped that this issue will not be fudged since much of what needs to be done about improving the cost effectiveness as well as the performance of the railways is about the implementation of devolved structures for planning and managing them in much more joined up ways than we have ever seen before. There is a clear link between the industry framework for managing markets, customers, operations and infrastructure and the political framework associated with it. Common sense alone suggests that the two things need to be considered in the round.
Philip Hammond has said that a “horses for courses” approach is sensible in relation to industry structure. He is quite right about this and as far as can be discerned most of the dialogue in the railway community is focused on developing pragmatic and workable outcomes. I remain hopeful that the definition of horses and courses will not be so narrow as to make Boxing Day racing at Wetherby the template for the Grand National. We shall see.

It is already very clear that the devolution agenda is driving the changes in industry operational dynamics but it remains to be seen quite how these will be developed, and when they are, how the political and funding frameworks will be changed to underpin them.

A key strand in thinking about devolution must be to determine accountability. The lines of political and operational accountability will need to be very clear whilst the role of the centre (whether this be the Department for Transport, ORR, Rail Delivery Group or in Network Rail) must be equally clearly defined. In truth there is much more scope for variation in railways than is likely to be acceptable in the NHS, for example. Whilst network benefits will need to be defined and protected, there is considerable merit in considering the passenger railways (though not necessarily the freight) as an amalgam of various market-based local services and networks with different customer needs requiring bespoke operational and infrastructure standards and solutions.

Over the next few months as the White Paper is drafted much detailed as well as “in principle” consideration needs to be given to these issues. The whole industry and the wider political community will need to be involved in a thoughtful way as frameworks are developed and new solutions found. Not least a definition of localism needs to be found that is sufficiently flexible to promote solutions that are relevant to particular situations. On the one hand the national network requirements of freight providers must be protected whilst the creation of regional devolution should also recognise the benefits of even more “local” applications for smaller branch lines and networks.

Royal Ascot can co-exist with Newmarket, Redcar and Aintree. The role of the British Horseracing Authority will need some redefinition and the Tote has already been sold.

Seminar series starts with devolution

Devolution will be the subject of the first of a new series of seminars addressing how the rail industry can generate the best outcomes from its response to Sir Roy McNulty’s influential report on rail value for money. Passenger Transport has teamed up with First Class Partnerships and Waterfront Conference Company to launch the After McNulty: seizing the opportunity rail seminar series. This series will kick off with the devolution-themed seminar at Osborne Clarke, No.1 London Wall, London, on November 9 and 10.

The two-day seminar will address the subject of devolution, both within the rail industry and the political process. Delegates can join the debate on how rail policy is moving, contribute to its development and benefit from its consequences.

The event will feature a presentation by Robin Gisby, director, operations and customer services at Network Rail. Gisby is charged with implementing devolved operational structures within the rail infrastructure controller.

Delegates are welcome to attend one or both days of the event. To view the full seminar programme visit www.thewaterfront.co.uk.
Passenger Transport readers can claim a 10% discount on attendance fees and sponsorship packages. If you’re interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at this event, email carrieswift@thewaterfront.co.uk for details.

BOOK ONLINE: Visit www.thewaterfront.co.uk and quote promo-code PT139-140 to receive a 10% discount

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