Rail North Committee (RNC) Meeting:
Tuesday 14 July 2020

The RNC received a report
from Jane Cornthwaite, Strategic Rail Adviser,
sponsored by David Hoggarth, Strategic Rail Director,
on the subject of

Rail Reform and Devolution

The ‘Executive Summary’ (Section 2 of the Report) highlighted three key elements deserving of member-support as part of the rail reform agenda. These may be bulleted as:

  • Accountability
  • De-centralisation
  • Transparency

Section 3 of the Report provided ‘Consideration’,
stressing the need for quick decisions and actions
to ensure that the devolution agenda continues to move forwards.

An historical summary reprised the objectives for rail devolution in the North:

  • to support economic growth by delivering more rail capacity and better rail connectivity;

  • to improve the quality of the railways in the North, with a better offer for passengers encouraging more use;

  • to deliver a more efficient railway and to secure greater value for money for the support from the public purse.

Critique of stated objectives for rail devolution in the North:

None of these three objectives is distinctively ‘northern’.

The example offered by Ove Arup on behalf of TfN in their additional response (Draft Issue, 2 September 2019) to the Williams Rail Review mentions engineering possessions and suggests that a devolved authority could negotiate alternative windows to the benefit of local users. This is a worthwhile consideration but it does not need to await devolution - something similar has already been put into effect in connection with the Shenfield to Southend electrification upgrade, thanks to pressure from local MPs acting in response to lobbying from their constituents.

The same response is also critical of the “historical divide” whereby the North is “split between two Routes down the Pennines” and calls for a Northern Region within which socially and economically identifiable areas of common interest could be recognised when allocating resources and defining service levels. Todmorden is identified as an “anomaly” in that it is managed by the London North-West Route, despite being administratively in Yorkshire. However, it should be noted that this “anomaly” goes back at least as far as the British Railways boundary between its North Western and North Eastern Regions. Todmorden in fact sits quite naturally towards the west of the Pennines on account of its traditional tendency to look in that direction rather than eastwards. Unfortunately it is unable to access travel products within the portfolio of Transport for Greater Manchester, despite the economic benefit that accrues thanks to cross-boundary travel.

Could devolution bring any significant benefits that could not otherwise be secured through greater national responsiveness to local voices?

National Government conceivably might welcome the opportunity to place itself above and beyond the cut and thrust of disputes concerning allocation of public expenditure within a devolved area. However, localism/regionalism is a two-edged sword: decisions that can influence national outcomes are placed beyond the direct control of national Government.

There can be no guarantee of cost savings arising from devolution, especially if a large number of disparate stakeholders are invited to participate in complex decision-making processes.

That said, there are several intangibles that could well blossom in a devolved climate. Broader “ownership”, thanks to a wider “buy-in" to transport products, and stronger identification with the associated delivery mechanisms could be achieved through a wide range of cues:-

  • Livery - as witness the distinctive colours of former British Railways Regions (e.g. tangerine for North Eastern) and Corporation bus services (e.g. green and orange in Halifax);

  • Tariffication - as with the former Huddersfield Corporation penny-ha’penny child returns during school holidays, and the current West Yorkshire Metro 16-18 Blue PhotoCard;

  • Street & station furniture - high quality, consistent design, and identifiable branding can promote a sense of place;

  • consistently uniformed or badged staff contribute to an assurance of public safety.

Techniques such as these have, for instance, been successfully applied to the rebirth of the North London Line as part of the London Overground. Anticipated outcomes include the following benefits:

  • A more robust public transport realm;

  • Confidence-builder, especially amongst potentially vulnerable would-be passengers;

  • Reduction in vandalism and assaults;

  • Pride amongst employees, leading to more outstanding performance.

However, there is a potential downside in that employees whose morale is boosted may be open to exploitation by employers seeking clearly demonstrable reductions in operating costs.

 

The Williams Review

 

The Report notes (3.14) that TfN has responded to the Williams review, and Keith Williams has met with leaders in the North to hear their views directly.

Three challenges are identified as central to the debate concerning further devolution:

Challenge #1: disparity between railway geography and decision-making and TfN/authority boundaries: Network Rail has itself been undergoing a ‘devolution’ agenda of creating stronger regional organisations – decentralising decision-making where possible. It is unlikely that a further restructuring within Network Rail could occur in the next few years, even with a very strong devolution case.

Critique of ‘disparity’ challenge:

Railway geography has traditionally formed a symbiotic relationship with cultural perceptions and mental maps. In Victorian times, the route of a newly projected line inevitably produced economic winners (communities that gained a local station) and losers (those that did not). Naming and re-naming of stations may reflect the influence of local government or local landowners, as witness the change from ‘The Peak’ to ‘Ravenscar’ in 1897 (developer pressure), or ‘Ormesby’ to ‘Marton’ in 1982 (civic issues). Mass transit systems often project awareness of their network by means of an iconic diagram, such as that pioneered many years ago by London Transport. Such representations exert a powerful influence on our spatial perception, introducing an element of distortion if we begin to treat the diagram as a map. They also enable transport authorities to define the names of such parts of their city as are served by a local station, whilst serving to restrict public awareness of localities served only by other modalities.

Challenge #2: how can devolved decision-making be compatible with a national network that requires a high degree of co-ordination in both planning and operations: there have been calls for a ‘guiding mind’ to ensure that planning and coordination occurs across the network; however, it is not clear to whom the ‘guiding mind’ would be accountable.

Critique of ‘compatibility’ challenge:

The railway network has naturally acted as a harbinger for standardisation: witness the way in which “railway time” came to displace local time throughout the UK. Similarly, although the Great Western Railway claimed a superior quality of ride thanks to its broad gauge, it finally had no choice but to adopt the standard gauge.

Rarely does the opportunity arise to create a completely new railway, such as HS1 & HS2. Cases for rail de-centralisation must therefore rest with such business opportunities as can be risk-isolated from the rest of the industry. Examples might include open-access train paths, third-party rolling stock (similar to the former Pullman Car services), plus value-added services such as business facilities, chauffer connections, superior refreshments, onboard entertainment, and so on.

Challenge #3: for devolution to be meaningful, funding must eventually be devolved too: Transport for the North has been calling for devolved funding settlement for some time and is developing a new governance model through work on development of the Northern Transport Charter (being overseen by a Member Working group). However, there are specific complexities in relation to the rail industry as so much of it is already subject to a very complex set of commercial and regulatory industry arrangements. Furthermore, suitable provision must be made for contingency and risks. As we are seeing in the current crisis, the reliance on government support to underpin lost revenue, is likely to come with conditions.

Critique of ‘funding’ challenge:

Delivery of many public services across the UK is weighed down by complex regulatory burdens. Many are designed to monitor the effectiveness of public/private partnerships, as can arise through franchising, outsourcing, concessions/lettings, executive agencies, quangos, transfers of undertaking, teckal vehicles, and so on. Local government officers, civil servants, and transport operators are engaged in complex periodic negotiations to determine formulae and issue guidance in respect of payments/re-imbursements to cover not only the various national/local concessions but also a broad swatch of multi-modal passenger travel products.

Devolution will need to be a highly disruptive experience if it is to be of any real value - but any attempt to apportion devolved resources through something akin to the Barnett Formula seems too complex to contemplate. Perhaps a local income tax might offer a solution, but clearly that is very much blue sky thinking in the current context.

 

The Report concludes (3.19) by inviting members to support three key elements as part of the rail reform agenda:

1) Accountability to the public. In the North we need Network Rail, Train Operators and other industry organisations to act and behave in a way that demonstrates this accountability to the people and communities of the North. In time, we expect this to occur through formal devolved powers. Meantime, we advocate changes to Board structures and governance regimes that include more regionally diverse representation.

Critique of ‘accountability’ element in rail reform agenda:

The British railway network is ultimately owned by and accountable to the British public through the exercise of Parliamentary democracy, by means of debate, committee work, and MPs’ ability to act as channels for public concerns within their constituencies. Devolution offers an opportunity to resolve local and regional issues closer to their point of origin, but it is not clear to what extent a body such as TfN could successfully execute such a mandate, given that its democratic accountability is dispersed across a large number of separately elected bodies each with its own political agenda and fiscal silo.

The Ove Arup submission (Draft Issue, 2 September 2019) to the Williams Rail Review, on behalf of TfN, looked to the emergence of a “controlling mind” which might act as prime broker. Citing “numerous examples across the North where key rail stations are located within the catchments of two large cities”, it envisages situations where TfN could “work closely with all interested parties to identify the trade-offs to be made and prioritise services accordingly”.

In the absence of a Regional Assembly whose area of operation is co-terminous with that of TfN, there is a danger that TfN might be led to see itself as that “controlling” or “guiding” mind. Such a development would create a significant imbalance, not to say serious deficit, in regional democracy. The ultimate authority must rest with some form of general assembly and not just one strand, however significant, in the socio-economic-political life of the North.

And now we have yet another body, the Northern Transport Acceleration Council, which looks like it’s intended to put the skids under TfN. The Department for Transport has promised northern leaders a “direct line” to ministers, cutting out “bureaucracy and red tape”. The new council will be serviced by a dedicated team of civil servants based in northern cities whose mission will be to “prioritise and accelerate projects, utilising their local knowledge and expertise, and enabling them to hold ministers accountable on delivering for their local area at pace”. Transport secretary and Northern Powerhouse minister Grant Shapps will chair the council, whose membership will be the council leaders and elected mayors from across the region. The problem here is that it’s the same old faces yet again. Paperwork will circulate and virtue signalling will abound.

2) De-centralisation. All developments should be aiming to decentralise decision-making as far as possible. A decentralised system promotes mutual co-operation through mutual (rather than hierarchical) dependency. Organisations and individuals will make better, more informed decisions if they are empowered and accountable for making them. Central coordination of activity and centralised provision of specialist services or skills, of course will be beneficial, but should be there to support good decision-making where it needs to be made.

Critique of ‘de-centralisation’ element in rail reform agenda:

The concept of subsidiarity is of great value in areas of development that are fast paced and rapidly changing. However, the railway industry is constrained by the need to maintain compatibility with existing operational systems, some of which go back over a century. Trains must be capable of operating safely along a permanent way that is supported by a mix of energy supplies and a variety of signalling systems, where undesirable interactions may prove lethal.

In its (initial) response to the Williams Rail Review, Version 2, 30 April 2019, TfN noted that the rail industry “lacks a clear strategic direction”, and called for “an integrated strategic plan” for the introduction of new rolling stock, where acquisition and national cascading needs to be in lockstep with infrastructure upgrades such as electrification schemes and platform extensions to accommodate longer trains. This cannot be delivered without some degree of centralisation.

3) Transparency. Trust has been eroded between many industry parties and stakeholders because full industry information has not always been available, e.g due to commercial confidentiality. More sharing of information - and even more importantly establishing joint working groups, and joint teams means that all parties have access to the same information, understand all the complexities and constraints and will be more likely to come up with a consensus of options and their strengths and weaknesses, even if they do not have the same opinion.

Critique of ‘transparency’ element in rail reform agenda:

Joint working is commendable in theory, though in practice it can provoke conflicts of loyalty when embedded officers find themselves challenged to support outcomes that may fall significantly short of the aspirations of their parent body. Managerial and operational intelligence relating to public transport in the North of England is disseminated among too many stakeholders. Their overlapping remits serve to impede objective scrutiny and focused response.

Lack of rigour in defining relationships between interested parties may spawn a culture within which a merry-go-round of reports and recommendations can serve to camouflage critical paths and weaken individual accountability. Decision-making granularity must not be set at too fine a mesh. It is not good to create a super-abundance of horizontal (consultative) pathways whilst tolerating a paucity of vertical (executive) pathways.

 

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