The chancellor should use his Autumn Statement to set out firm plans for major investment in the north’s rail infrastructure.
The chancellor should use his Autumn Statement to set out firm plans for major investment in the north’s rail infrastructure
The chancellor’s vision of a northern powerhouse is a world away from the Department for Transport’s cost-cutting agenda. The surprise announcement that Northern Rail is putting up fares shows government must learn to sing from the same hymn sheet or the opportunity to rebalance the economy will be squandered.
From 8 September, passengers using Northern Rail services on weekdays between 4.00pm and 6.30pm to and from many of the north’s main cities will have to buy a peak-time ticket, costing up to double the off-peak equivalent.
While the timing of Northern rail’s announcement was a surprise, there has been some heavy foreshadowing of the fares increases. Northern Rail and Trans Pennine Express franchises are up for renewal in early 2016, and the Department or Transport is currently consulting on what the main features of the new franchises should be.
It’s all a very far cry from George Osborne’s call for a northern powerhouse based on better rail links. The chancellor has recently supported the One North group of local authorities in their call for an integrated vision for transport in the north of England with high speed trains running coast to coast between Liverpool and Hull.
The Department for Transport’s consultation on the future of the two northern rail franchises does not embrace the chancellor’s vision or One North’s ambition. Instead, it lacks a commitment to serious investment.
There are suggestions that the DfT is leaning heavily on Northern Rail’s operators with an emphasis firmly on cutting costs, reducing subsidy and paying for limited improvements through higher revenue.
This is exemplified in questions about where cuts in services could be made and suggestions that some fares are unreasonably low and should go up.
Monday’s fares move, which is likely to raise little revenue, is apparently designed to discourage non-commuters from travelling in the rush hour period. It is certainly a blunt instrument, and one group it will hit hard is the growing number of part-time, flexible and zero-hours workers who rely on the trains but cannot use the increase-exempt season tickets.
For those who use Northern Rail, this will all be difficult to swallow. The last time the franchise was let in 2004, it was done so on the basis of ‘zero growth – zero investment’.
Since then, Northern Rail has grown very fast, increasing passenger numbers by 50 per cent. The result is that passengers have seen fares leaping ahead of wages in the same way as the rest of the country, but with very little investment in more or better trains.
The result has been overcrowding of key commuter routes and the continued use of outdated, uncomfortable and low quality rolling stock in the form of the two-carriage diesel Pacers that make up a third of Northern Rail’s fleet.
Adding higher fares to overcrowded services and out of date trains is clearly counterproductive and will discourage existing and potential passengers from using the railway.
The warm words and promises of future investment must be accompanied by action now. In the short-term the government and Northern Rail should scrap plans to introduce evening peak tickets. Instead, they should focus on measures to make Northern Rail more attractive to potential passengers, including part-time and flexible workers.
The chancellor should use his Autumn Statement to set out firm plans for major investment in the north’s rail infrastructure without unfairly penalising those currently reliant on its sometimes substandard operations.
With the wider rail fares discussion becoming increasingly political, passengers will be looking to all parties for a commitment to ending the annual cycle of above inflation hikes, too.
The Department for Transport’s consultation on rail services in northern England is open until 18 August. Details of how to respond, along with information on the Right Track North campaign can be found on the Campaign for Better Transport website.
Andrew Allen is a policy analyst for the Campaign for Better Transport
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