Putting the North on the right track
Landor’s 2014 Connected North: Railways for People, Place and Growth Conference in Huddersfield was a resounding success. It succeeded in bringing together a wide range of industry players to discuss many different issues affecting rail travel in northern England.
The North of England is a diverse region made up of large cities, small towns and stunning countryside. It’s home to around one quarter of the UK’s population, and covers five of the six English metropolitan areas. Rail travel plays a crucial role, though it is often quicker to get to London than it is to travel from one coast to another! Overcrowding, low train speeds, old rolling stock and under investment were just some of the problems the conference addressed.
Peter Wilkinson, the Dft’s outgoing director of rail franchising, started the ball rolling by stating that rail franchising required far more local input, and should not be left to Whitehall as it had been in the past. The new Northern and TransPennine Express franchises introduced extensive public consultation procedures, which would set new standards and improve accountability.
Speed was also of great importance: Wilkinson said it was ridiculous that trains capable of 100/110mph running speeds had to run on lines limited to 30/35mph, adding that some existing lines – like the Hope Valley struggled to cope – while the more suitable Manchester to Sheffield route via Woodhead lay dormant.
Competition was vital for the industry, and he particularly praised the role played by open access passenger train operators.
Wilkinson echoed many delegates by calling for new trains and refurbishment of older stock; however he also added that more innovation was required: Heavy rail was not always the answer, and some lightly used routes could be operated with minimal or no signalling. Some passenger trains could be adapted to carry freight (parcels or mail) to provide an additional income stream.
Connectivity was a main conference theme – between east and west, as well as north and south. Steven Leigh (Head of Policy and Representation, Mid Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce) castigated HS2 as a London-centric project that offered the North poor connectivity and few benefits: It did not fit in well with the existing network. He championed the rival HSUK ‘spur and spine’ project – which shadows the M1 alignment for much of the way – saying it would link many more places, serve both the trans-Pennine and cross -country routes, as well as being cheaper to construct. As to the Chancellor’s recent comments about building HS3, Leigh commented that the remarks appear to have been made without consulting anyone in the North beforehand.
A political perspective was provided by Julie Hilling, MP for Bolton West, and chair of the All Parliamentary Rail Group in the North: She said that funding – and not just authority -needed to be devolved to a northern regional body; Rail North had to represent the whole of the North and should not become a Leeds-Manchester axis that neglected the peripheral parts (like Liverpool, Hull and the north-east). Hilling also commented that providing additional rolling stock, not overpricing was the solution to the overcrowding problem.
Open access operations originated, but so far had been confined to northern routes said Tony Lodge, ( Research Fellow, Centre of Policy Studies): Hull, Bradford and Sunderland had few or no through services to London previously but now enjoyed several trains a day thanks to open access operators (running on the East Coast Main Line). Lodge hoped that the proposed GNWR Huddersfield to London via Manchester service would get the go-ahead as well, as this would extend competition to the West Coast Main Line. Lodge added that open access on the ECML had not undermined the incumbent operator since East Coast Trains was paying record premiums to the DfT.
Station development was addressed: Lisa Mew and Harjinder Sandhu (Groundwork Wakefield) updated the conference on the progress being made at Wakefield Kirkgate – once dubbed ‘Britain’s worst station’ – due to its high crime rate. After years of neglect, Kirkgate is being restored by public and private bodies. Offices, shops and cafes form part of the redevelopment, though the station will remain Britain’s largest unstaffed halt.
Paul Salveson (University of Hudderfield ,and Community Rail pioneer said stations should be community hubs and provide a much wider range of services; far from being de-staffed, people should to be brought back to work on them. “Petrol stations don’t just sell petrol, so why should booking offices only sell tickets?” he asked.
Martin Abrams (Public Transport Campaigner, Campaign for Public Transport) spoke about the north-south funding gap: Quoting PTEG statistics he maintained that the total transport expenditure per head was £545 in London, well over twice levels prevailing in the North. And Robert Samson (Passenger Issues Manager, Passenger Focus) disclosed that (as yet) unpublished research indicated that the top three passenger priorities in both the north east and north west were: ticket prices; getting a seat; and frequent services (the same priorities as for rail travel nationally).