North East facing big decision on railway system

RAIL chiefs are putting together plans to create a North East railway system amid concerns their Manchester counterparts may end up controlling trains across the region.

A train passes through the Northumberland countryside
A train passes through the Northumberland countryside

RAIL chiefs are putting together plans to create a North East railway system amid concerns their Manchester counterparts may end up controlling trains across the region.

Ministers are preparing to devolve control of the railways to councils in a move designed to hand back powers over the next decade.

Under those proposals services currently operated by Northern Rail, for example, would be controlled at a regional level, though there has yet to be any clear indication over how much of the £429m public subsidy handed to Northern would be made available to councils.

Leaders of the North East’s 12 local authorities have met to go over the options now facing them, with many favouring a “go-it-alone” plan to control trains from Whitby up to Berwick and across to Cumbria, with civic centre bosses setting out the terms of any new franchise.

A North Eastern franchise would be more locally focused and accountable, but some transport authority members have questioned whether it would it have the level of funding needed to match its aspirations.

The alternative is to join with councils in Manchester and Yorkshire where officials are already setting up a Rail in the North Executive. Such a move would, it is feared, see the North East squeezed out and forced to fight for funding against a substantially stronger Manchester.

A Rail in the North Executive would pave the way for a situation in which officials in Manchester could demand train services in some parts of the North East are scaled down in order to pay for greater services in the North West.

Council leaders from across the region met on Friday to consider the options, with the Association of North East Councils, chaired by Sunderland Council leader Paul Watson, now putting together a combined response to the Department for Transport proposals.

Mr Watson said: “As the importance of this issue cannot be overestimated we must ensure we make an evidence based decision to achieve the best result for the whole region. As all of the information is not available to us yet we will need work out our best option as more details emerge.”

Those leading any new rail organisation face some familiar problems. A report on the issue prepared for the Tyne and Wear Integrated Transport Authority stresses that at present “the rolling stock on local services is of low quality and journey times are slow, with poor connectivity between places”.

Last night David Wood, chairman of the Tyne and Wear Integrated Transport Authority, said: “Devolving local rail services away from Whitehall is a real opportunity for the whole North East to get a fairer deal on services and investment. We will need to work closely in partnership with all five of the Tyne and Wear local authorities as well as the Tees Valley authorities and Northumberland and Durham county councils to build a common approach on this important issue.”

Greg Stone, a Liberal Democrat councillor, was one of those discussing the rail devolution plans at the transport authority meeting, before the report was sent to council leaders. He warned that with the Government so far giving no clear indication of future funding, a partnership with Manchester and Yorkshire may be “the most practical solution”.

Mr Stone added: “Some will clamour for a North Eastern sub-franchise but there are doubts over whether it would be wholly viable on its own.

“Whichever option is pursued, it will clearly be important to ensure that the interests of the North East are protected given the greater ‘muscle’ of Manchester and Yorkshire, and that efforts are made to improve service and stock quality.”

The Department for Transport is “seeking to devolve, where appropriate, more accountability and decision-making related to local rail services to sub-national bodies, such as local authorities.”

A consultation closes at the end of the month.

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