Today, I went along to a Westminster Hall debate called by Labour on railway rolling stock allocation to the north of England, after the news that First TransPennine Express are to lose their nine Class 170 two-car units next year, ultimately due to the bungling incompetence of the DfT over the West Coast Main Line franchise renewal.
It is time that ambition and a vision was brought forward, in order to get our railways in the north back on track. The investment has been piecemeal and hardly integrated and cohesive. It is all very well to preach repeatedly about the electrification brought about by the Northern Hub and Transpennine upgrade projects, but unless there is the provision of electric trains to use the new infrastructure, then it is quite frankly rather a waste of many millions of pounds.
I would support moves towards a devolved rail network for the north. The investment and improvement in the London Overground network since it was taken in-house by Transport for London has been remarkable, and the consequent rise in passengers has proved the old adage that is applicable to the railways - "build it* and they will come" (*providing you build something that people want/need). I have seen it with my own eyes. People tend not to use trains because they want to, but rather because they have to. They're put off using trains if the timetable is inconvenient, the journey time too long or the fares unaffordable. But if you provide a service that is attractive to passengers, then you can guarantee that they will take up the offer.
I come from a part of the world where a 30 mile stretch of railway sees no trains for nearly 12 hours every night and between 1900 Saturdays and 0600 Mondays. The same stretch of railway, serving the Sellafield nuclear site, which employs 17,000 people, has a commuter service which is virtually non-existent. But if you were to provide a decent half-hourly service to Sellafield from both the north and south during the peak periods, I guarantee you that people would use it.
I'd like to see areas such as Merseyside and Tyneside/Wearside/Teesside given the freedom to operate the rail services in their conurbations and beyond. A full-electrified network of lines stretching from Preston potentially to Wrexham on the west side of the country, with modern electric trains operating throughout.
This would include extensions of the Merseyrail network from Ormskirk to Preston, from Kirkby to Wigan, Birkenhead to Wrexham, Ellesmere Port to Runcorn and Warrington, and Chester to Warrington. Most of these lines are currently served infrequently by ancient, dilapidated rolling stock, and could potentially be transformed by a revitalised regular, efficient and pleasant modern service.
To the east, I'd advocate a frequent stopping service between Morpeth and Newcastle, electrification westwards to Hexham, the reopening of the Blyth and Tyne freight lines to passenger trains, and the electrification of the Durham Coast from Newcastle to Middlesbrough via Sunderland and Hartlepool. With wires also reaching from Northallerton to Teesside, this route would then provide a diversionary route for electric trains on the East Coast Main Line. With frequent through services from Bishop Auckland to Saltburn via Darlington and Middlesbrough (all newly electrified, of course), then the North East would be able to claim its own railway rebirth. Let us not forget that it is this very same line, the Stockton and Darlington, that started it all in 1825.
This is all just back-of-the-beermat stuff really, but I truly believe that unless someone with a vision and an ambition to see our railways transformed, then they will never see them achieve their full potential. If there are no more Brunels or Stephensons in this country, we may as well board the slow train to Midsomer Norton and Mumby Road.