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Transport expert warns against 'localisation' of railways

John Freeman
John WhiteleggLocal transport expert Professor John Whitelegg has warned against proposals from Lancashire County Council to get the government to press ahead with plans to hand powers to manage rail franchises to local councils in the north of England, arguing it would make provatised rail even worse than it is now.

Earlier this week, in a letter to the Secretary of State for Transport supporting the proposals, the council arued locally managed rail could boost the economy, and highlighted how Lancashire authorities are already working successfully with the industry.

County Councillor John Fillis, cabinet member for highways and transport, said: "One of the many opportunities presented by local management of rail would be to ensure future rail development ties in with councils' wider objectives to develop a fully integrated transport system.

"There is potential for rail to - more closely support economic development and transport plans, which could for example mean timetables being better integrated across rail and buses, improving connectivity, and extending opportunities for people to access work or training.

"Councils in Lancashire are already working with the rail industry to deliver this kind of improvement, such as with the reinstatement of the Todmorden Curve to improve links between Manchester and Burnley, and we're well placed to take on greater powers."

But Professor Whitelegg - the visiting Professor of Sustainable Transport at Liverpool John Moores University and Professor of Sustainable Development at University of York's Stockholm Environment Institute - warns that "localisation" would not not solve our rail problems.

"The current rail franchise system is dreadful and needs sweeping away," he told virtual-lancaster, "but handing over the responsibility for dealing with franchises from central government to local governemnt does not solve the problem.

"Rail companies will still 'call the shots' in terms of what they can do for what level of subsidy," he argued, "and will put up the price of fares and it will still cost several arms and legs to re-open stations, build new stations or get a regular 20 minute service between Lancaster and Morecambe with brand new rolling stock. 

The County Council is, admittedly, still cautious about the localisation plans, saying it needs further clarification on how devolution to an organisation provisionally termed Rail North would work.

But they point out other Lancashire successes, including the award-winning Accrington Eco Station, work to increase passenger numbers on community rail lines, and upgrades to the busy Clitheroe to Manchester line.

"In some areas, such as Merseyside, management of transport is already fully integrated," notes County Councillor Fillis, " and it is natural they would have a leading role in any devolution arrangements.

"But we need to ensure that all partners have a level of influence which enables them to deliver improvements and represent their residents, so we're asking the government to carefully consider how this can be achieved."

Rail North has asked all northern Local Transport Authorities to write to the Secretary of State for Transport supporting a business case for devolution being put forward during August.

"The problem for the rail idustry is that is a very fragmented, privatised rail system and this needs sweeping away," feels Professor Whitelegg.  In his book, Broken Rails, Christian Wolmar notes that it now costs 2.5 times in real terms to do anything on the rail system compared with BR days.

"The answer is the ending of privatisation and the railways would be run by a combination of state railways and private railways (as in Denmark and Germany) which guarantees better value for money. And because the state rail company offers a non-profit taking back up function the privatised companies cannot hold us all to ransom.

"There would also be a regional level of government with elected politicians and their job would be to make sure the rail system operates in a way that benefits the whole community and is under democratic control.

"This can’t happen with a county council trying to run a dysfunctional franchise system.  It would be just as bad as it is now."

• John Whitelegg's Sustainable Trasport company, Eco-Logica: