Is further devolution the only route left for Northern Rail?

By George Robinson

The current Northern Rail franchise has had a troubled existence. Shortly after it started, it got hammered by industrial relations issues. It was then particularly affected by the timetable travails of May 2018, along with GTR.

Things aren’t getting any easier. Several weeks ago, Northern’s operating group, Arriva, was put up for sale. And, this week, the Manchester and Liverpool mayors – Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram – piled in. They’ve called for the franchise to be terminated after “a year of sustained misery” and have drawn up a long list of perceived failures by the TOC.

There are short-term and long-term political dynamics at play behind this announcement. For the former, the Department for Transport (DfT) is politically weakened from dysfunction at a national level. It seems that half of the UK transport sector is suing the department for one reason or another. This makes it a particularly opportune moment to throw mud, as it’s unlikely to be thrown back.

It’s the longer-term pressures that are likely to be more successful in getting Burnham and Rotheram what they want, however. Devolved bodies like Transport for Greater Manchester and Merseytravel have been pushing for years to take a more substantive role in running rail services, away from the DfT. And they’ve had some success – both in terms of performance and in corresponding uplifts in performance.

Indeed, the current Rail North partnership already sees Transport for the North and the DfT jointly managing the Northern and TransPennine franchises. And all Burnham and Rotheram are asking for is moving towards what West Midlands Rail has – total oversight of the West Midlands franchise and the ability to re-let it in the future. The only difference being that Birmingham currently has a Conservative mayor.

Aside from franchising, a parallel strand of significant activity is the reforms being brought forward by Andrew Haines at Network Rail. The organisation is to move towards a devolved model, with many functions including operations, maintenance and renewals, taken away from HQ and moved to new regional bodies.

Manchester and Liverpool will be covered by the North West and Central region, which itself will be split into two routes – aptly named North West and Central. It’s easy to see Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram attempting to gain political control over the region in some way, or at the very least the new North West route.

The DfT under its current leadership will be reticent to do this, to say the least. Chris Grayling isn’t known as a fan of any kind of devolution, let alone when this process would see power transfer from his remit to two combined authorities that will vote in Labour mayors in perpetuity.

With national politics moving so fast however, Grayling is unlikely to be the kingmaker much longer. Keith Williams, running the government’s Rail Review, will want to put together a coherent devolution proposition for the next transport secretary that meaningfully moves things forward and ties up the loose strands of a fragmented rail system.

Whatever Williams comes up with, it needs to accommodate a way of managing franchising and infrastructure that keeps both the DfT and local transport authorities happy. And, ultimately, one that gets past the politics and delivers for passengers.

It goes without saying that a competitive advantage exists for those in the rail ecosystem that can identify the direction of travel of these changes; and help make them a success. As Williams has already identified, rail is all about balancing competing interests; that suggests there’ll be clear winners and losers once the dust has settled on this period of industry turmoil.