TRANSPORT SECRETARY Chris Grayling has ruled out plans to devolve fully rail services in the Birmingham conurbation to West Midlands Rail (WMR), a partnership of local authorities in the area.
A draft collaboration agreement between WMR and the Department for Transport was approved by the West Midlands Combined Authority in August 2016. This included the provision for WMR to submit a business case to DfT by the end of 2021 setting out plans to take over formal responsibility for suburban rail services around Birmingham after the end of the next franchise. The move follows plans in the next franchise, due to begin in October, to create two ‘separable business units’, with WMR leading franchise management for trains in the West Midlands unit and applying local branding to services (p53, December 2016 issue).
However, ‘a change of opinion’ by Mr Grayling since his appointment as Transport Secretary ‘reflects his concern about the benefits of full devolution of rail responsibilities across the UK’. As a result, the collaboration agreement between WMR and DfT has been amended to remove references to full devolution of services, with a section setting out these plans replaced by one headed ‘ongoing engagement’ which sets out plans for the parties to meet on an annual basis to discuss progress.
The amended version of the agreement was due to be put to the West Midlands Combined Authority Board on 20 January for approval. The report to the meeting highlights that ‘this change of approach raises a number of challenges for WMR, not least that the premise of the current draft Collaboration Agreement was based on us being on a journey to full devolution’. However, the report suggests that following discussions it has been concluded that ‘the change of approach is manageable’, with no impact on either financial or legal arrangements. It also notes that ‘the Collaboration Agreement draft did not commit the Secretary of State or WMR to full devolution, and as that decision is not required until the early 2020s, there is plenty of time to build confidence with the ministerial team now and in the future’. It is added that the Transport Secretary ‘wholeheartedly supports the collaborative approach that WMR has developed with the DfT’.