Despite the warm words between the parties concerned, an effective form of devolution to Rail North has yet to be achieved

I am a passionate believer in devolution. I have long held the view as far as rail is concerned that the devolution of planning and operations to the lowest possible unit of management offers the best possible opportunity for market, customer, staff and stakeholder focus. All of the evidence from the earliest days of sectorisation in British Rail to the current experience of franchising and of open access operations tells the same story. Devolution to the optimum level generates the best operating performance, the best revenue growth, the highest passenger satisfaction and the most innovation.

Defining the “optimum” level is where the arguments start. A “horses for courses” approach is best. At the time of privatisation this was exemplified by the separation of Chiltern Railways from the former Thames & Chiltern Division of Network South East. Whilst absolutely supporting and indeed advocating this arrangement at the time I was also arguing against the break-up of the South Western Division into what some were advocating should be at least a six way split. Smallest is not always most beautiful. Focus is the key: market focus and operational integrity in particular.

I advocate the same principles when it comes to the specification and procurement of franchises. Merseyrail is the most obvious example of such focus but beyond that at present there are few examples of what I would like to see happening on a much wider canvas.

Some point to Scotland and Wales as examples of the devolved specification and procurement of rail services but in my judgement this is only true to a limited extent. Scotland and Wales are countries with national authorities having responsibilities devolved from Westminster. Yet they are in essence, centralised authorities within quasi-national political frameworks. They have certainly proved their worth in developing overarching strategies, prioritising resources and schemes, but true localism has yet to develop.

Rail North has been in the advance guard in England in advocating a devolution that on the face of it looks more like the Welsh and Scottish models than a Merseytravel or even a Transport for London, which each have particular local focus, albeit that in London that focus is the largest metropolitan area in Europe. In its business case to the Department for Transport, Rail North prayed in aid all of the devolved models so far established in the UK. Whilst alluding to these as successful models they failed, in my opinion, both to capture the essential differences between them and to identify what it was about each of them that make them successful.

As a result there were inconsistencies in their argument. It is by no means clear what sort of strategic approach Rail North would adopt to the specification and procurement of services if granted the powers by DfT. Highlighting the success of a small focused operation such as Merseyrail whilst at one and the same time advocating a trans-regional approach to franchising the rest of the railway in the whole of the North of England begs many questions about the clarity of their thinking and intentions. If Merseyrail is successful because it is small and focused then why not adopt the same approach in the other great Northern conurbations? Why go even further and apparently advocate the merger of the Northern and TransPennine franchises?

This is not to argue that there is no case for Rail North devolution. A more local approach could operate within a wider regional framework but it was by no means clear what Rail North has in mind. Would Merseyrail be taken into Rail North or remain to be procured by Merseytravel? Almost certainly the latter would apply in which case why shouldn’t the same apply in other city regions?

The argument could be deployed that priorities would be determined as they are in Wales and Scotland under the umbrella of their respective political and transport authorities. However, this argument is weak when applied to Rail North because there is no equivalent viable single political entity to make the decisions and determine priorities. To be fair there is not much that Rail North can do about the large number of local authorities that form the “shareholder” body. There is no such thing as a Government of the North of England and precious little likelihood that one could be created on the basis of history. Mancunian harmony with Liverpool and Leeds; or Hull with Leeds; or Teesside with Tyneside; would be very difficult to achieve.

I take the point that because something is difficult to achieve it should not be attempted but there are much better ways of establishing a vehicle for doing so than by creating a management structure of self interested parties from every nook, cranny and corner of the North. The governance structure is probably the weakest element of the proposition. A private company made up entirely of directors appointed by vested interests is unlikely to succeed. Company-wide responsibilities and accountabilities are fundamental to the way private companies work. Public bodies with similarly broad responsibilities should operate in the same way. Certainly priorities have to be managed across the whole of the North but this is better achieved by directors with overall regional accountability than by turf wars between different factions.

Reading the recent letters published by the secretary of state and Rail North one could be forgiven for thinking that none of the above applies. Wrong. Reading between the lines it is plain as a pikestaff that the DfT has deep reservations about Rail North. Although the words appear supportive and the exchange of letters exhibits a degree of bonhomie that isn’t often seen between politicians of different hues, there is a very long way to go before an effective form of devolution to Rail North can be achieved. A change of government could give it additional political impetus but even so officials at the DfT, not to mention the Treasury, will counsel extreme caution. The solution lies in Rail North coming up with a much more convincing approach to governance and methodologies for prioritising schemes. It can be done and I for one hope it is done soon.

This article, and many more, appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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