Grant Shapps is the man who could ultimately determine whether or not Boris Johnson is re-elected with another large majority next election. One of the key promises made by the Government during the election was to ‘level up’ the country, and the railways and public transport in the North is perhaps the golden opportunity for the Government to do so. Chris Grayling’s three years at the Department for Transport were marked by the cancelling of key infrastructure projects, most notably the Castlefield Corridor project in Manchester and the cancellation of the Midland Mainline Electrification north of Market Harborough. The legacy of Grayling very much still haunts public transport following the May 2018 timetables disaster, leading to over ten thousand rail services being severely delayed or cancelled across the country, leaving commuters stranded and cities disconnected. This disaster led to the Department of Transport taking control of Northern from Arriva in early 2020, before the Coronavirus pandemic, which highlighted further the failures of the railway franchising system. The Government announced the end of franchising on 21 September 2020.
Whilst some might think that the issues plaguing Britain’s railways can only be solved by nationalisation, and others by full privatisation, the issue is not that simple and requires a delve into how the franchising system has been run. The nature of railways in Britain is that TOCs (Train Operating Companies) have natural monopolies on a vast majority of their routes with some operators having a near-total monopoly on an entire region of the country. The need for physical infrastructure is a major contributor to this monopoly in contrast to the flexibility of airlines. Additionally, privatisation of the tracks and stations is not fiscally sustainable which has been proven by the failed experiment of Railtrack from 1994 until 2002. Only one of the three railway sectors has benefited from privatisation, which is that of rolling stock, with Britain increasingly modernising its trains – with over forty new fleets of trains being introduced since the end of British Rail.
Perhaps one of the greatest issues the UK Rail Network has faced is that pre-COVID passenger numbers were over double what they were upon privatisation, with very little modernisation having taken place to match. Much of the modernisation that did occur ran significantly over time and over budget, which was one of the contributing factors to the aforementioned timetabling fiasco in 2018. Whilst the end of franchising is a step in the right direction, the use of Direct Awards Contracts is not a solution, nor should it be seen or used as anything more than a stepping stone towards a new system. A new system should incorporate the best of privatisation and removes as much of what contributed to those issues as possible. Privatised rail operators do bring benefits to the network no doubt, however, they come with significant flaws – most notably that of a number of operators particularly on the East Coast who have overbid and had to be renationalised – as happened in 2009 and 2018.
Regardless of how the Government goes forward with the operation of train services in the United Kingdom, the primary issue lies in the ageing infrastructure of the UK Rail Network. Whilst many comparisons are made to the railways of Europe, the comparisons often leave out one major fact: the British Railway network is still largely Victorian built tracks and stations which are in frequent need of repairs whilst much of Europe’s railways were rebuilt after the Second World War, after being almost totally destroyed during the conflict. Our ageing infrastructure cannot meet the demands of modern passengers, which is where the projects cancelled by Chris Grayling come into play and how future improvements are essential.
The ‘Castlefield Corridor’ in Manchester is a useful case study to highlight the issues the country’s infrastructure faces. Manchester Piccadilly is the second busiest rail interchange outside of London in the country, with nearly four million passengers making a change annually at the station, which averages out to around ten thousand per day. Passengers change for trains across the country, such as to Liverpool, London, Reading, Norwich, Birmingham, Glasgow, Liverpool and Edinburgh. The Castlefield corridor runs from Piccadilly through Oxford Road to Ordsall Junction, which is used by services to and from North Wales, Scotland, Liverpool, North West and North East England – with about eleven trains an hour during off-peak hours in each direction. This is where the infrastructure issue arises, with Manchester Piccadilly only having one platform in each direction to accommodate these services. This has led to massive overcrowding and delays from trains having to slowly navigate the throat. The plan which Grayling cancelled would have seen new platforms at Piccadilly and tracks widened between Piccadilly and Ordsall Junction to increase capacity and minimize the likelihood of delays, upgrades which were promised by George Osbourne in 2014 and supposed to be completed by 2018 as part of the Northern Hub project.
A Network Rail report published in September 2019 highlights that the proposed improvements to the Corridor would have increased capacity from twelve to sixteen trains per hour, and that fifteen trains per hour began operating in the May 2018 timetable changes with only the Ordsall Chord constructed – placing increased strain on the two-track section between Deansgate and Piccadilly. The report goes on to highlight the platform constraints at Manchester Oxford Road which allow only four minutes an hour for trains to attempt to recover any delays. Were the Government to fund the requisite infrastructure upgrades, then much of the issues could be resolved and services could operate much more reliably and efficiently across the North.
Were Grant Shapps and the Government to greenlight projects like the necessary improvements to the ‘Castlefield Corridor’ and other such projects to rationalise the rail network and increase network capacity, the Government can maximise the fulfilment of its promise to level up the country and likely solidify or improve its performance across much of the Red Wall by removing the stigma many of us in the North, even some of us that are Conservatives grew up under and still believe to be the case: ‘Tory Governments don’t care about the North or what the North wants. That they are too busy enriching themselves and their friends.’ With the pandemic drastically reducing the number of rail services and the number of passengers across the network, now is the perfect opportunity for the Treasury to provide Network Rail with the funding to carry out major upgrades such as these, with greater track access available and an economy which needs to grow – investment in transport infrastructure is one way to grow the economy. This would create new jobs likely to be in construction, as well as new drivers and train crews needed. This is in addition to potential economic growth to smaller towns across the North that could potentially be brought by the introduction of new train services upon a vastly improved network.