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November 10, 2010

Could rail network be localized?

Staying with the theme of community control of transport systems, Paul Salveson argues that this debate needs to move beyond the constraints of what can travel on our roads. Arguing that the recent trend of steadily increasing the scale of railway franchises has led to a loss of focus and entrepreneurial flair, he speculates on the benefits that would accrue from a system of more locally based franchises

Paul Salveson,

Railways haven’t been viewed as fertile territory for community enterprise, but things might be starting to change. The Government is reviewing its policy on rail franchising, and there is growing interest in testing out ‘micro-franchising’ – an idea developed in the 1990s based on continental European experience, where small networks of local railways are franchised by a county or regional authority.

The approach adopted over the last few years has been to go for bigger and bigger franchises that end up losing focus and lacking entrepreneurial vision. As things stand, the franchise process is the exclusive preserve of the big multi-national transport groups that can afford to spend millions on their bids. It’s interesting that the most popular train companies are either small operators like Grand Central, Hull Trains, and Wrexham and Shropshire, or relatively small franchises like Merseyrail and Chiltern Railways.
If the Government decided to give “micro-franchising” a try, there would be opportunities for co-operatives, or other types of social enterprise, to enter the rail market. The Government should cascade responsibility for franchising local rail networks – perhaps comprising three or four routes which form a clear geographical network – to county councils, consortia of local authorities or, in metropolitan areas, the passenger transport executives (PTEs). This already happens in Merseyside, where the Merseyrail franchise is managed by the PTE.
This approach would fit with the Government’s ideas on localism and the Big Society. Local community bus services have been delivered by social enterprises for years and a lot of expertise has been developed. If the community transport sector went further and developed railway expertise it could bring the sort of innovation to local rail that it has demonstrated in the road transport sector. There is already a co-operative business in the south-west – the Go Co-op – formed to develop “open access” rail operations. There is no reason why it couldn’t bid for rail franchises if the size was right and small operators were incentivised to bid.
A local social enterprise running a small, area-based franchise would generate local jobs both directly and indirectly – by local purchasing and promoting the area as a tourist destination. There is no reason why it could not also run feeder bus services and provide other complementary services including bike hire and travel agency services, and use stations as convenience stores selling local produce.
Paul Salveson has worked in adult and community education and the railway industry. he founded the Association of Community rail Partnerships in 1997 and was awarded an MBE “for services to the railway industry” in 2009. He runs his own consultancy specialising in railways and community engagement – The Railway Doctor