The new Northern franchise will ‘start the transformation of rail travel in the North’ said Northern Rail’s managing director, Alex Hynes, in a press release announcing Arriva’s success in securing the nine-year franchise.
The franchise has made several bold commitments. More than £1 billion will be spent improving services, including £400 million for brand new CAF trains to replace the Pacers. There will be a substantial increase to peak-time capacity, more connections and free Wi-Fi on all trains and stations. It also makes pledges to staff, promising £2.2 million to upgrade staff rooms, to hire at least 20 apprentices a year and to paying the living wage to its employees.
Unlike the previous franchise, the new agreement has been let on a growth basis, creating investment for the route that has been sorely needed. The previous franchise was awarded on a presumption of zero growth. Since then, patronage has gone up by 50 per cent – the equivalent of 100 million passenger journeys a year.
One of the key stakeholders that fed into the creation of the new franchise was Rail North. Formed around 2012, Rail North represents transport authorities across the North of England and was created as a pathway to devolution. The body has produced a Long Term Rail Strategy (LTRS) for the North and worked closely with the Department for Transport (DfT) to draw up the Northern and TransPennine franchise specifications.
The concept of getting the North to speak as one on transport issues was highlighted in 2014 in a report produced by HS2 chairman Sir David Higgins. At the time, he suggested creating a Transport for the North (TfN) body to make the most of the east-west connectivity opportunities created by HS2, which at that time were being overlooked. Later that year, TfN was formed.
‘It fitted the rhetoric that was around the Northern Powerhouse concept, which is about the economies of the North working together as one economy of 16 million people rather than lots of individual smaller authorities and economies,’ said TfN chief executive David Brown, who was appointed in November 2015. Starting out as a British Rail graduate, David has spent a large portion of his career drawing up the strategy for regional transport in the North. Prior to joining TfN, he was the chief executive of Merseytravel and before that he held the same title at the South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive (SYPTE).
In 2017, TfN will become a statutory body, giving it more powers to deliver on its transport strategy for the North. Rail North will continue its franchising role as part of TfN.
The body will look at how it can develop both passenger and freight rail services in the North. ‘It’s a challenge because a lot of those things are in their own silos, so bringing them together for one comprehensive strategy for the North which then enables us to make the case for infrastructure, transport infrastructure in particular, is what London has done successfully over the last 15 years or so.’
Asked if he felt that TfN would help drive investment out of London and into projects in the North, David said, ‘I think it’s less about pulling it away from London. I think it’s more about influencing how the money is spent in the North and arguing that more money should be spent on transport infrastructure. Also when that money is there, the North is able to influence the priorities on which that is spent through local decisions but also through national programmes… so that we’ve got Northern solutions for the North rather than decisions being taken elsewhere.’
This month, TfN will publish a new report which will provide more detail around the organisation’s various objectives; one of these is smart card technology.
‘What is it that people want? Because I think in the past it’s based very much about what technology is available.’
Adding, ‘In London people have adopted Oyster cards, over quite a long period of time. Now people are embracing Apple Pay, or other contactless payment methods, but in different parts of the country people’s acceptance for things are different and their cultures are different. We introduced the smart card in Merseyside and were conscious that different people have different approaches to the smart cards and to have something that’s fit for purpose for your customers is important, and not what people see elsewhere like London.’
One of the main focuses of TfN is its work with Network Rail and the Department for Transport to look at options to improve trans-Pennine connectivity.
‘We’ve had a lot of very positive feedback from the business community,’ said David. ‘The Northern business communities are now looking to gear up to have a strong voice on pan-northern issues.’
He added, ‘Huge private sector investment is going into ports in Liverpool, in Immingham, in Teeside to name a number, and what they’re saying is they need to be able to get their goods and their equipment from those ports into their markets which are in the North of England. It’s no surprise that they use the same arterial routes… but we need to make sure that the growth we’re going to see in freight and logistics in the North is catered for in those routes as well as passenger growth.’
Central to TfN’s aims is economic growth and other regions are starting to take notice. The Midlands Connect Partnership, which is made up of various Local Enterprise Partnerships and transport bodies, is developing a similar long-term transport strategy for the Midlands. ‘Rebalancing the economy’ may be a popular piece of political rhetoric, but it is something organisations like TfN and Midland Connect believes they can start to do.’