MPs: plans for regional rail franchise will improve service
Rail passengers stand to get a better service if the Government devolves running of the lines to the regions, a committee of MPs says today.
But the House of Commons Transport Select Committee warns that rural areas should not lose out under "decentralisation" if cities and larger towns in an area attempt to take priority.
Both Cornwall Council and Devon County Council have submitted expressions of interest to the Department of Transport over the region having some responsibility on the railways, after the Government launched a consultation last year.
The principle is commonplace in Germany, and has already been established in London and parts of the north of England. Transport for London took over the London Overground network from the DfT in 2007 and Merseytravel, owned by the region's councils, runs Merseyside's network.
TfL has been credited with transforming rail travel in the capital, from commissioning fleets of new trains and opening lines, to the innovative electronic ticketing system of Oyster cards.
But franchising elsewhere remains with the Whitehall department even where services are essentially local.
The Great Western franchise, currently held by train operator First and covering inter-city and branch-line services across rural and urban Devon, Cornwall and the wider South West, expires later this year.
But confusion surrounds its future after the botched West Coast mainline deal led to Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin putting all new franchise contracts on hold.
The Transport Select Committee today insists the Government's consultation paper on decentralisation – published in March – was broadly welcomed.
One group representing metropolitan councils argued that it would lead to "significantly improved local rail services, greater accountability, more integration with wider local public transport networks and better value for money".
After visiting Germany, committee MPs found devolution of rail funding to regional governments since 1996 has led to a "re-balancing of expenditure away from intercity services and towards regional rail" – but warned there are "wide disparities in the quality of regional rail services around the country".
It goes on: "We agree that there is scope to devolve control over some rail franchises to local or regional bodies and we support the Government in looking at how to achieve this."
The MPs said while the Northern franchise, which is due to be re-let next year, is a prime candidate for the new approach, the interests of rural communities amid many urban conurbations "must be taken into account alongside those of the big cities".
This week, inflation-busting average rises of 4.2% for regulated fares, which include season tickets, took effect for passengers.