The North East will be fighting Manchester and Leeds for rail investment as the Government finalises the future of Northern Rail.
Ministers are preparing to devolve responsibility for decisions about local rail services to council groups, with a powerful Rail in the North group being set up across England’s Northern regions.
Council plan would see a committee of councillors instead of the Department for Transport appoint and oversee train operators and see the Transpennine and Northern Rail franchises merged and run by one firm when their contracts end in 2016, saving £20m a year.
That devolution would give councils control over funding worth hundreds of millions of pounds and have a big say over priority routes.
But now a crucial behind-the-scenes lobbying effort is going on to ensure the Government recognises the need for a North East Business Unit within the new group, or risk seeing money for new lines such as the Ashington-Tyneside route diverted to Manchester.
Paul Watson, leader of the Association of North East Councils, has been leading lobbying efforts as councils prepare for the rail takeover. While the North East is eager to work with Manchester and Leeds, there are concerns that the risk associated with taking over rail routes will not be justified by the investment unless the region is handed a guaranteed minimum of funds.
Mr Watson, Sunderland Council leader, is seeking to secure that funding commitment before the 12 councils from Teesside to Berwick sign up.He said: “At the forefront of our minds is achieving stronger economic outcomes for the North East which we are all committed to and which rail devolution – if we can get it right – could bring significant benefits.
“We are now looking to the Government to make an announcement this Autumn that would be the trigger for us, in discussion with Rail North and the Department for Transport, to further explore how our aspirations for rail investment can be achieved in the future.”
MPs gathered in parliament yesterday to be updated on the latest developments, with Gateshead’s Ian Mearns backing the plans.
Mr Mearns, vice chair of the All Parliamentary Rail in the North group, said: “We have to make sure that the sort of Greater Manchester through to the Humber route does not take all the resources, as important a link as that is.
“It is important that the North East voice is heard because there a worry that when you look at the three Northern regions, they have some 14,15 million people between them, the voice of the 2.5 million people we have here might get lost somewhere. We have put a marker down to make that clear.”
Mr Watson added: “Improving rail connections, infrastructure and investment is a huge priority for the North East, which we have highlighted at today’s APPR in the North Group meeting. All twelve councils, along with Nexus, have entered into a positive discussion with Rail North and the DfT to explore how the devolution of rail franchises could result in more influence over the provision of rail services in the North East and across the wider North, for both passenger and freight services.”
The Government will announce the next steps in the devolution plans in November.