It all felt different in June as over 200 of the great and good of the north gathered in the swanky Manchester Midland Hotel for the Northern Transport summit 2017. But dreams fade quickly.
To recap, the stuttering northern economy is outperformed by the south, which also has higher education standards from secondary level. The London black hole becomes denser as all investment and talent is sucked into it. The further south you go, the easier it is to justify decent public transport: anything built fills up with passengers, and the economy can support local contributions from both the public sector and business. There’s not really any room for new roads, and the price and sort supply of land encourages denser communities and more walking and cycling, which in turn creates a better quality of life. In contrast, northern cities and communities are starved of public transport investment, lack skilled people, are poorly connected and find it hard to attract quality jobs outside the big cities. Northern railways are filled with slow, old diesel trains, the roads are filled with commuters and goods that should (and in other European countries would) be on rail and tram, and by dirty, lowest common denominator buses. The potential of cycling is untapped and everything is expensive, poorly co-ordinated and difficult to use. And it rains more. Welcome to the North.
At the Northern Transport Summit, Paul Swinney from Centre for Cities gave a solid and fact-based presentation that suggests that the north is a series of economies, not just one. Cities attract and generate the best jobs, but northern cities are key underperformers with skills and access to skilled labour the key reason. He painted a bleak picture of low skilled, poorly paid jobs in suburban call centres and distribution depots served mainly by congested roads. Sunderland, despite Nissan came in for special mention. He suggests that intra-regional transport is the main transport challenge, although the rest of the summit focussed on glossy inter-regional solutions: Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR): not High Speed 3 as it will not be high speed or trans-pennine motorway tunnels. Trams are obviously not sexy enough.
Light relief was provided by Jesse Norman (Eton, Merton, dad called Sir Torquil), Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Transport. Only in post 7 days, his civil servants put together a wiki-speech with plenty of northern facts, but he didn’t know anything about anything. He wanted us to have a single voice. Great - let us know when you have something to say, Jesse. Of course, when he did have something to say (August), it was to tell the north that the cupboard was bare.
Quaintly, the dilemma for most participants was how to big-up their areas, companies and contributions while trying to make a case for investment in northern transport. Liverpool concentrated on NPR and the port. Cumbria points out that it is more than the Lake District. Is it? Lancashire look longingly at the unitary Greater Manchester system and wants to improve East-West links. Why, when the main economic focus is south to Manchester and Leeds? Sheffield is more interested with internal connections. Apparently 2 pairs out of the 4 South Yorkshire centres (Sheffield, Doncaster, Barnsley Rotherham) don’t have direct rail links. Can you guess? I couldn’t. And Manchester is the centre of the universe, has the biggest airport and wants NPR.
New GM Mayor Andy Burnham gave a rousing speech. He recognises the need to break through the Treasury appraisal rules, a key thread of the event. Now London Crossrail is almost finished, Crossrail 2 is taking shape. It is obvious to everyone in the room that using conventional appraisal NPR is a dead duck and Crossrail 2 will overtake NPR in the funding queue. But no one was brave enough to say it out loud. Come August the obvious has happened and London gets the investment and overheating again.
Highways England explanation of how they have got on and built roads and bridges contrasted with the highly defensive attitude of Graham Botham from Network Rail when challenged on high costs and poor project management. And this highlights a real problem: rail projects take decades and are risky, road projects are much easier. We’ve been here before. Recent northern history has seen integrated transport packages created, but only the roads get built. Perhaps Highways England should build our new rail lines? If we get any, that is.
Overall the impression was of some dedicated and passionate professionals looking for the right transport solution for the north. But I do wonder if everyone has been seduced by the glamour of new, almost-high-speed rail lines when currently 3-car diesel trains on a 2-track railway chug between Leeds and Manchester, held up by 2-car local trains. Transpennine electrification was announced in November 2011 and would reduce journey time, increase capacity and improve comfort but no progress is visible on the ground after six years. Why not?
As John Swinney pointed out, intra-regional transport is a key factor in attracting quality jobs. Manchester wants to be a world city but doesn’t even have a Metro, and local transport in Leeds is based on primitive buses. Thank goodness Liverpool built their Northern and Wirral lines tunnels in the sixties – they certainly wouldn’t be able to now.
What is my prescription? First, it is essential that Manchester-Huddersfield-Leeds TransPennine electrification is completed as soon as possible. This should come with some limited line speed improvements and at least some four-tracking to allow fast trains to pass slower passenger and freight trains. Much of the route was originally four-track, so this should all be possible within the existing railway. There is plenty of decent quality surplus electric rolling stock available in the southeast.
Secondly, Manchester as the major growth generator in the north needs to start work on a tunnelled metro connecting electrified suburban lines. Metrolink is a good start, but it is slow and the city centre saturated with trams. A proper Metro would dramatically improve connectivity and unleash urban regeneration particularly to the north of the city where huge areas of derelict or underused land is available.
Everywhere there should be a focus on urban renaissance and walkable, cyclable communities based around fixed transport links. This is not rocket science and a quick Ryanair trip to any German city will explain how it can be done.
And we need to bin all those road proposals. They evidence is that they lead to dispersed, low quality and poorly paid jobs, and disparate, unconnected settlements with a poor sense of community. At the top of the pyramid the proposed tunnelled Transpennine motorway is a hugely destructive and wasteful scheme. We can do better than this.
Posted by Peter Bla