Rail renaissance in the West Midlands

While both Liverpool and Manchester can claim to have hosted the world’s first passenger train service in September 1830, Birmingham’s historic claim to railway fame goes back even further. 

The development of the stationary steam engine in the years up to 1778 by James Watt, in partnership with Matthew Boulton at the Soho works in Birmingham, had a major impact on the Industrial Revolution. 

Fast forward more than 200 years, and in the 1990s the seven West Midlands metropolitan councils, through Centro, “had quite a lot of influence” in the specification of local rail services, according to West Midlands Rail’s Malcolm Holmes.

In the early years of franchising, Centro was a co-signatory to the original Central Trains franchise and had a financial input into the rail services. 

But the Railways Act of 2006 changed this, and with the start of the present London Midland franchise in November 2007, the West Midland authorities’ involvement in specifying and funding services ended. 

Then, in 2012, the Government signalled a change to policy, and consultation started on the devolution of rail powers in several parts of England. Holmes notes that the West Midlands authorities were invited to respond, and a proposition was put to Government “as to what we thought could be achieved. We suggested a discrete franchise covering the West Midlands local services, which would be locally managed after sufficient local expertise had been established”. 

In short, the idea is to extract from the current London Midland franchise the local services within the West Midlands Rail area, leaving the remainder of the LM franchise to concentrate on the West Coast Main Line services operated by Class 350 electric units, plus the St Albans Abbey and Bedford-Bletchley branch lines. This operation is informally dubbed West Coast Connect.

As with the Rail North proposition, the DfT is taking a steady approach, being careful to ensure that proper governance structures and expertise are established before moving to full devolution.

Here it is worth noting that the present London Midland and Virgin West Coast franchises expire very close to each other in 2017 (October and September respectively, assuming that the London Midland Direct Award goes ahead as planned). The DfT could have elected to take WM local services into a West Midlands franchise at this stage, still under DfT control, and combined VWC and LM services into one West Coast franchise. This would have resulted in there being one operator into London Euston, a factor worth considering given the amount of disruption to services as the HS2 facility there is developed. 

But the DfT, it seems, is taking a more pragmatic approach. Yet the development of West Midlands Rail, the body that (it is hoped) will manage the West Midlands franchise from about 2024, is proceeding steadily. Holmes notes that geographically this will cover not only the seven Metropolitan Districts of the West Midlands Integrated Transport Authority/Centro area, but also seven Shire and Unitary authorities (see panel, page 50).

A key moment in this devolution process came on March 2, when Secretary of State for Transport Patrick McLoughlin met with the WMR Leaders Group in Wolverhampton, and subsequently wrote to the Group reiterating his “whole-hearted support for the principle of devolution, and I am encouraged by the positive voice you are projecting through WMR”.

McLoughlin continued: “While we have discussed that full devolution of local services is not possible for the franchise let in 2017, a collaborative approach offers a positive way forward. This will allow us to develop proposals for how local decision-making can play a central role in defining future rail services in the West Midlands.” He concluded that the next step would be to “establish a Memorandum of Understanding clearly setting out how we will work together”.

The exact details as to how West Midlands Rail and the DfT will work together in the management of this new franchise from 2017 are not yet finalised. Holmes says WMR’s ambition is that it will help draw up the franchise specification (this is already in hand), and then have growing involvement in the day-to-day management of that franchise. This franchise will retain the shape of the present one, although WMR has asked the DfT that the West Midlands services will form a separate business unit from October 2017, discrete from the West Coast Main Line services and with its own branding. 

“We can manage our local services far more effectively from within the West Midlands than can be done from an office in London,” says Holmes.

This separate business unit within a DfT-controlled franchise would be the first step in the transition towards a West Midlands franchise managed by West Midlands Rail. It is anticipated that control will pass in stages from the one body to the other, with the end result that eventually West Midlands services will be managed and specified in much the same way as Merseyrail Electrics services have been for some years (RAIL 784). 

This carefully staged approach ensures that West Midlands Rail (WMR) can properly build up its expertise and competencies in franchise management, while minimising the risk of any sort of failure that would fall back onto the DfT.

However, while this way of devolving franchises seems to be the most pragmatic, the West Midlands’ designation as being the nation’s ‘Engine for Growth’ emphasises that economic growth is needed now. The core reason for such devolution is the recognition that rail plays a significant part in growing local economies.

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