A report last month in the Western Boring Views informs us that both Cornwall and Devon County Councils may be looking to take over from Whitehall the supervision of local rail services in their areas. All worthily localist, of course. Whether that approach works elsewhere depends on how good the fit is between railway geography and administrative geography. It would work better in some counties than in others. The current proposal that rail services in the South-East, from Brighton to King’s Lynn, be consolidated into one north-south franchise across London shows that there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
In Devon, a localist approach works well west of Exeter but less so to the east. And it is to the east, where the two main lines run in from Somerset, that the biggest growth in traffic seems likely to occur. After decades of an insensitive and destructive ‘Devonwall’ policy, Cornwall now seems set on the road to greater differentiation that, whatever the setbacks, will ultimately lead to substantial autonomy, if not outright independence. Even the setbacks along that road are creating a reaction that drives the process forward. So Devon looks increasingly eastwards. It shares a fire brigade with Somerset, and a Local Enterprise Partnership, the body responsible for economic development. The M5 corridor between Bridgwater and Exeter is one of the key growth points in western Wessex, as a journey along that route will confirm. And now the two counties share a very modest proposal for broadband too. Not forgetting the Wessex Reinvestment Trust, now in its tenth year serving Devon, Dorset and Somerset.
Within the assumptions of the Whitehall system, regional rail services can be managed locally, but only at a price. That price is continuing Whitehall control over strategic decisions that are unlikely ever to be taken locally, but which could be taken regionally, such as funding branch-line electrification. The powers of local councils aren’t envisaged as extending to big operational priorities, such as freight investment, only to such things as the fares structure or what colour to paint the stations. Substantial devolution it ain’t. Although the possibility of councils forming consortia to acquire extra powers is raised, so are the legal and financial difficulties in sustaining them. That’s what happens when you’ve already decided that you won’t even consider regional government.
Yet the question of what is the right balance between central and local control may perhaps be best answered regionally. Those ignorant of our British railway past or our European railway present may imagine that everything would grind to a halt unless controlled from a giant signal box in London. In fact, a wealth of experience has been gained over the past 200 years in passing rail traffic from one system to another and dealing with the problem of overlap through running powers and joint lines.
We have been here before, with Cornish Railways in the 1980’s and Wessex Trains in the 2000’s. Did we buy a return ticket? Because we need to get back to that kind of solution, one that was enormously popular with all but the powers that be. The Scottish and Welsh governments are making huge strides in creating a better rail system for their countries. We’re not. Is it a punishment for being English that all we’re prescribed is ongoing centralism that inhibits adaptation to circumstances, coupled with local fragmentation in a form that could potentially inconvenience the rail user for no real benefit? Over the next 50 years we shall need to be opening or re-opening thousands of miles of railway. Wessex can do it. But can Whitehall and its partners in under-ambition?