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Devolving rail will put us on track to deliver improvements to our network

4 min read

From the world’s first passenger railway powered by Stephenson’s Rocket, to the Docker’s Umbrella, the Liverpool City Region has been leading the transformation of Britain’s railways for centuries.

Both now and then, our railways have been the engine that’s powered our economy. At their best, trains don’t just facilitate the movement of people; they drive social mobility, connecting people with opportunities – and each other.

Yet, for far too long, communities across the country have been held back from fulfilling their potential by a system that’s become too complex, too disjointed and too expensive to run.

Getting to grips with the nuances of the British rail system is an undertaking in itself. When John Major’s government privatised our railways in 1993, splitting the management of trains, tracks and infrastructure, it set rail services in this country on a divergent path.

Three decades on and the absence of collaboration between operators has created a fragmented, inefficient system that has halted any progress or innovation on our railways in its tracks. If you want to see a living example, you needn’t look further than the Liverpool City Region.

Take Moorfields station, the gateway to Liverpool’s bustling commercial district. While the station itself is operated by Merseyrail under concession from the Combined Authority, the new £500m trains that serve it are publicly owned, the tracks and signals the trains run on are operated by Network Rail and, if that wasn’t complicated enough, the escalators into the station are owned by Liverpool City Council. This is all overseen by the Department for Transport and the Office of Rail and Road. It’s a convoluted and confusing system – but it doesn’t have to be this way.

I’ve consistently argued for further devolution of local rail services, and I’ve been vocal about exploring the potential of bringing the region’s existing network infrastructure into the control of the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority.

Today, we’ve taken a major step towards tidying up that mess. The Liverpool City Region has become the first area in the country outside of London to begin conversations on a trailblazing rail devolution deal with government. It puts us on course to open up the right conversations around how we can improve our rail network, to run it more closely under unified, transparent management, and in the best interests of passengers.

The deal has been signed by the Secretary of State for Transport Mark Harper at Headbolt Lane station, in my hometown of Kirkby. Headbolt Lane is a brand new £80m, fully accessible station served by the first battery powered passenger trains in the country. Having grown up in the town, I’d heard talks of a new station being built there for as long as I can remember.

Thanks to devolution, we’ve turned it into a reality – and it’s just one example of our region’s proven track record of improving and investing in local services.

We were the first area outside of London to take control of its local rail network with the Merseyrail concession in 2003, which is now one of the best performing networks in the country and, earlier this year, we launched the country’s first publicly owned fleet in a generation into passenger service, cementing our place at the forefront of pioneering rail technology.

This latest move will hopefully lead to greater local influence over investment in better station facilities, improve network performance, capacity and timetable enhancements, as well as expediating the delivery of projects to improve services for local people and deliver best value for money.

It signifies not only a massive moment for our region – but the start of a new wave of devolution for the country. It’s the Liverpool City Region once again blazing a trail in the revolution of our railways – and I’ll be fighting our area’s corner every step of the way to make sure we capitalise on this opportunity.

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