On Boxing Day, virtually no trains run in England, with one principal exception – Merseyside. Responding to requests from traders and residents for an effective service on one of the year’s busiest shopping days, the region’s transport authority, Merseytravel, and its train operator, Merseyrail, worked together to develop and fund a solution.

The Boxing Day service symbolises the approach Merseytravel put in place following devolution in 2003 of the intensively used 75 mile local network of Merseyrail Electric services with its unique underground city centre loop. The intention was to re-position the local train operator as a long term partner which would act in the interests of communities across Merseyside rather than as a short term purely commercial arrangement.

From the start, Merseytravel enshrined this principal in the Merseyrail contract, along with new service standards based on feedback from Merseytravel’s customer panels, its women’s and disabled persons forums, businesses and local authorities. The result was a train operating contract based on the needs of local passengers and of the local economy.

It was also the first rail franchise in the UK with targets for improved customer satisfaction and the first to cap peak fare rises at inflation. In Merseyside all stations had to be staffed from first train to last (another UK first). Real time information and secure station accreditation was also required at all stations. Contractual targets to improve punctuality led Merseyrail to invest in new train maintenance equipment. Cycle spaces and facilities for disabled people were included in a long overdue refurbishment of the train fleet.

Before devolution, the local railway was dubbed ‘Miseryrail’. Little more than a year later, passenger satisfaction had leapt from 82% to 90%.

Before devolution, the local railway was dubbed ‘Miseryrail’. Little more than a year later, passenger satisfaction had leapt from 82% to 90%. That level has been maintained or bettered virtually ever since. It is a record no other rail franchise or concession can match, and has frequently placed Merseyrail as the country’s leading operator.

Patronage has consistently exceeded targets, growing 30% from 27 million passengers a year in 2002/3 to well over 35 million in 2016/17. A key factor is the way the concession is managed as a partnership in the local interest as much as the service standards Merseyrail must meet. The contract is unique both in its 25-year length and in its expectation that the operator will assist Merseytravel in progressing rail projects which support the regional economy and improve quality of life, but may not have a standard commercial business case.

Examples include agreements to share the financial risks of running longer trains in 2008 and doubling Liverpool-Chester services in 2010. In 2014 Merseyrail contributed £3m of upfront investment to make a second fleet refurbishment possible. In 2015 it agreed to fund half price travel for 16-18 year olds following changes to the school leaving age, bearing the risk that additional patronage would cover the cost. For several years, transport authority and operator have also jointly funded extra late night trains during special events and before Christmas.

The impact of rail devolution in delivering local policies, from social inclusion to economic growth, has helped create the foundation for a long term rail strategy to underpin the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority’s economic plan. This has led to new and improved stations and a new train fleet. These groundbreaking new trains were designed with direct input from local communities and include dual voltage capability so new destinations can be served, and industry first onboard information and communication facilities as well as level boarding for wheelchair users. Merseytravel will also own the trains which will save on leasing costs.

The moves by Merseytravel to bring local bus services back under public control also offers the opportunity to integrate bus and rail with one brand, one network and one ticket.

Merseyrail Network map