Working out who owns what on Britain’s railway network is tricky. Ownership and management of rail assets and services can change with each franchise renewal. This process is now running efficiently, the DfT would say, and makes this transfer of power predictable – although passengers will continue to be caught unawares.

There have been two stories so far in this area this year that demonstrate an emerging trend. The first was Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) announcing its proposal to take over Manchester’s 97 main line stations. Although the majority of these are small local stations managed by Northern Rail, many of which are unmanned, the proposals do include Manchester Piccadilly – the fourth busiest station in the country outside of London, according to the latest ORR statistics.

Railways that work for everyone

TfGM believes that it will be able to invest in the stations in a way that current franchise systems don’t allow, creating stations that serve as community hubs and freeing up valuable sites for redevelopment. It’s worth noting that Network Rail announced its own plans last year to release railway owned land around the country for housing. One scheme being considered was the former Exchange Station site in Manchester.

Photo: LandFox/ Shutterstock.com.

Based on TfGM’s model, Network Rail would retain ownership of the operational bits – the track and overhead lines. Existing TOC and Network Rail staff would transfer over to become TfGM employees.

The assumption is that a local authority, that is in it for the long haul, should be better at creating stations that work for everyone in their communities, not just fare-paying passengers.

The TfGM press release had barely reached the inbox of rail journos before Transport for West Midlands (TfWM) announced that it would run the Midland Metro tram service directly from 2018 when the current concession with National Express ends. TfWM’s reasoning was very similar to TfGM. By running the service itself, the authority could save money by not carrying out an expensive tendering process and invest profits back into the network. Again staff would be transferred over.

Integration vs competition

Regional transport bodies like TfGM and TfWM are adopting a varied approach, much like Transport for London (TfL) does. TfL has the London Underground, which it operates directly, but it also has London Overground and Docklands Light Railway (DLR), which are operated using concession/ franchise models.

Some will say that local authorities taking more control of rail services is a good thing. They can look at the bigger picture and are not fundamentally driven by commercial incentives. Detractors will say that it stifles competition and will result in a declining quality of service.

From October, West Midlands Rail (WMR) will take a leading role overseeing the region’s rail network. The body, which is a partnership between 14 local authorities in the West Midlands, has been heavily involved in creating the specification for the future West Midlands rail franchise alongside the Department for Transport (DfT) and when the new franchise is launched it will be branded West Midlands Rail – the body has released an artist’s impression of what future services could look like.

‘Actually we’ve had a couple of people seconded into that team embedded in that throughout the franchise specification process,’ said Toby Rackliff, rail strategy manager, TfWM.

‘It was fairly transformational from our point of view,’ he added, describing some of the benefits the new franchise will bring to passengers. ‘There were certainly items in the invitation to tender that are down to our involvement and wouldn’t necessarily have been included if it had been a purely DfT specified franchise.’

The next franchise will achieve an additional 30 per cent capacity into Birmingham by 2022, a higher service frequency between Birmingham and Shrewsbury and address a service gap between Birmingham and Walsall.

Future Wolverhampton station

Full devolution

The future West Midlands franchise, which starts in September, has been split into two separate business units – one for the local West Midlands services and one which covers long-distance services. This is to allow for the possible full devolution of local rail services to TfWM in the future when the franchise next comes up for renewal in the next decade.

The West Midlands franchise, which is responsible for around 60 per cent of the services into Birmingham, was the authority’s first priority but Toby says the body hopes to have a similar influence over future franchise competitions which serve the region.

The ownership of Wolverhampton station, which is undergoing a substantial redevelopment, will transfer to TfWM for a short period between what would have been the end of the current Intercity West Coast franchise and the start of the new West Coast Partnership franchise in April 2018. TfWM has looked at the option of station ownership, says Toby, but has opted instead to push for a closer working relationship with Network Rail and the franchise operator.

‘It’s certainly something we’ve looked at,’ he said. ‘But actually we’re in the middle of developing a slightly different approach, if you like. What we’re looking to do is set up a stations alliance with Network Rail and also the new franchisee once that’s announced in June… I’m really optimistic that we’ll be able to get some tangible benefits to customers.’

Both TfGM and TfWM are at the beginning of an experiment which could leave the DfT playing only a slight role in future franchise planning. It will ultimately come down to passengers to judge its success.