Transport authority Centro will decide next week whether to formally tell the Government it is keen to take over responsibility for local rail services on behalf of authorities across the wider West Midlands area. The authority believes that switching power from Government to the region would mean a better deal for passengers and taxpayers, while supporting economic growth and job creation.
The Government recently launched a national consultation on the principle of devolving rail powers from Whitehall to the regions and has asked Centro for its views before the end of this month.
Councillors on Centro will vote on Monday (June 25) on whether to submit a formal expression of interest in taking over the commissioning and management of local rail once the region’s current franchise, operated by London Midland, expires in September 2015.
This would see Centro have control over the level of fares charged, the monitoring and performance of local trains and the laying down of minimum standards of punctuality and reliability.
Centro Chief Executive Geoff Inskip said: “This is a huge opportunity for the West Midlands to have greater control of local rail services so that it can develop the network in a way that underpins economic growth and delivers significant benefits for passengers. We believe it would also provide a better deal for taxpayers and help cut carbon.
“By holding control locally, we would be in a far better position to make sure the local rail network dovetails with other economic developments and transport networks and fully connects and feeds into the forthcoming high speed rail line, making sure we maximise the significant economic benefits offered by HS2. ”
Centro’s proposed expression of interest has already won the backing of the wider region after being endorsed by the West Midlands Rail Members Group which is made up of representatives from the seven metropolitan councils and surrounding shire counties.
The regional support comes against a backdrop of increasing concern over the local network’s ability to cope with ever rising passenger demand.
More than 44 million rail journeys were made in the West Midlands metropolitan area last year – up six per cent on the previous year – and with a doubling in rail passengers in the last ten years, the existing network is now congested with overcrowding at peak times becoming an increasing problem.
Mr Inskip added: “With passenger numbers continuing to rise, we badly need more capacity otherwise we will see more local commuter services squeezed out by inter-city and freight services.
“We believe that giving us greater control of the local network will enable us to better deliver the capacity we so badly need.”
In its proposed formal response to the Government consultation, Centro outlines an option for how a devolved rail franchise could work in the West Midlands, although it is recognised that much work is needed with the Department for Transport to develop the arrangements further.
Under the proposed option, Centro would be responsible for laying down the specifications of the local rail franchise and for appointing a train operator to run services on its behalf. This could either be through a joint franchise with the Department for Transport or through separate contractual arrangements.
Centro would be allocated a budget and have control over the performance of the local network while taking the revenue risk under a long term contract.
Local control would allow decisions on issues such as the service frequencies and staffing levels at stations to be made locally rather than by the Secretary of State.
Passengers would benefit from locally owned stations with improved passenger information, better security and staffing, cycle parking, more frequent trains and better fares integration.
It would also provide an opportunity for improved integration with bus and tram services while easing the way for a network-wide smartcard making it easier for passengers to use public transport.
Cllr Jon Hunt, Acting Chairman of Centro and the West Midlands Rail members Group said; “Our proposals would see the rail network become more responsive to local priorities while offering a better deal for taxpayers through the effective balancing of costs and revenues, changing specifications and fares as required and promoting local solutions. We believe it can reduce the long-run costs of the railway.”