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Row over operation of rail lines in the region
MINISTERS were accused last night of a U-turn that would wreck a bid by North transport chiefs to grab control of local rail services.
Transport authorities across the region have put together a joint proposal to have a greater say over fares and routes – leading to a takeover, in a few years’ time.
But that plan has been thrown into jeopardy by a shock move to hand some routes to the new private operator of the East Coast inter-city franchise.
The department for transport (Dft) wants that company – possibly Virgin, or First Group – to be a “multi-purpose operator”, including local trains.
Among the services that could be gobbled up are: * Bishop Auckland to Saltburn, via Darlington * Nunthorpe to Newcastle, via Middlesbrough * Middlesbrough to Whitby * York to Middlesbrough * York to Scarborough.
The move triggered a stream of protests to the Dft. Yesterday’s consultation on the East Coast franchise noted the widespread fear that it “might hinder progress on devolution”.
In its response, Durham County Council said it did not want local train routes joined with a “premium, high earning, long-distance express service”.
It wrote: “The council are keen to maintain, together with regional partners, the on-going engagement with DfT on rail devolution.”
That criticism was echoed by transport authorities in Yorkshire, which warned: “This will break up the integration of local services and the benefits such integration offers.”
And Lilian Greenwood, Labour’s rail spokeswoman, said: “If ministers are considering rolling back the rail devolution agenda, they must immediately say so.”
But a Dft spokesman insisted the idea was still alive, with a final decision to be made when the East Coast’s ‘invitation to tender’ (ITT) is issued next February.
However, he insisted: “We do not expect this competition to impact on the possible devolution of the Northern and TransPennine franchises.”
Those contests have been out back two years, until 2016 – after the next general election – because of recent crisis that have hit the franchising system.
That prompted Labour to pledge it would go much further, by allowing local transport chiefs to run a not-for-profit service – from 2016.
Before then, Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin will give his view on the devolution proposals, possibly before Christmas.
No fewer than 33 councils and transport bodies – including all those in the North-East and North Yorkshire – have formed ‘Rail North’ to pitch for the new powers.
Meanwhile, the new East Coast franchise is due to start in February 2015 and will run for a maximum of 11 years.
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said: “We want to see a revitalised East Coast railway, one that both rekindles the spirit of competition for customers on this great route.”
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