By Michael Cape
The distance from Manchester to Leeds – part of the most important commercial corridor in North of England – is 45 miles and according to Google it should take 58 minutes to travel by road. The person who came up with that figure, however, has surely never tried to negotiate the dreaded M62, otherwise known as “the world’s longest car park” – a road where it can sometimes feel like pot luck whether you arrive at midday or midnight.
Which is why, in order to be able to report on the latest in the series of high-level discussions about how transport issues must be resolved if the Northern powerhouse is to become a reality, the only way I could guarantee being on time when travelling from Manchester for the 11.30am meeting in Leeds was to go by train.
Not that the road network was the only subject on the agenda in the offices of KPMG, because all the delegates at the Leeds Chamber of Commerce / Super North Forum event accepted that without an integrated transport system – road, rail, ports and air – then the Northern powerhouse would remain little more than the talking shop that some cynics believe it has now become.
Currently there is not only no effective and integrated transport network serving the North, there is also no universally agreed plan for one. Even the bits that most people seem to agree on – High Speed 3 (HS3), a trans-Pennine tunnel, better roads – are 20 or even 30 years away, and the money still has to be found and allocated in a time of continuing austerity.
A reminder that it was never going to be an easy ride came with an announcement on the day of the Forum that plans for a revived Leeds trolleybus service had been dropped (the original service ran from 1911 to 1928). However, the fact that 90 per cent of all journeys are still undertaken by car meant that roads were prioritised in the Forum discussion – and it was not just the infamous M62 under scrutiny, but also the arterial feeder roads such as the M60, Manchester’s orbital motorway, as these inevitably suffer from domino-effect congestion whenever the trans-Pennine route is choked.
The potential nightmare scenario comes when large numbers of people climb into their cars on high-volume travel days such as bank holidays and thus create gridlock. Although unlikely to cause mass road rage given that patience when queuing is part of the British psyche, the situation does have life-threatening potential in that emergency vehicles could easily find themselves stuck in the vehicular swamp.
Ben Still – managing director of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority and also part of Transport for the North (TfN), as yet the only body that truly represents a pan-Northern approach – raised health-related issues in his concerns. “The only thing we all agree on is the M62 is at breaking point,” he said.
“That in turn impacts on urban motorways and local services. As health for one concentrates on larger centres, it demands more from motorway networks. If you are counting on the M62 to get somewhere, you need it to be reliable and we are a long way off that.”
Mr Still also pointed out that TfN has currently “inherited the Government’s plans for what they intended to do in the North, and worthy as some of these things are it is not an inclusive list. In my list we would have the Tinsley viaduct near Sheffield, which is one of the pinch points and will hold back the Northern economy going forward.”
Jonathan Turton, director of KPMG and an expert in transport infrastructure, also expressed concerns about roads. “We might get the 90 per cent of journeys in cars down to 80 per cent, but the problem isn’t going to go away,” he said. “We need to invest in road capacity. Smart motorways are only part of the answer, as they quickly get maxed out – I recently sat in a four-mile traffic jam on one of them at 11am.”
Mr Turton went on to say that the situation in terms of transport in the region had deteriorated since he started work in Manchester 18 years ago. “My journey then used to be 40 minutes; eight years later it was an hour and 15 minutes. It is a deterioration driven by demand.”
While the consensus was that the roads remain a key part of the transport infrastructure equation, there was a realisation that – important as they are – roads form only one part of the Northern powerhouse transport jigsaw. The case for new and improved roads is not an easy one to make, due to the vast sums needed and the time involved in delivering the projects.
International air links – or the lack of them – to the Yorkshire side of the Pennines was also seen as an area needing to be addressed as a priority in any strategic plan, as the situation was limiting the amount of overseas investment being attracted to the region.
Nolan Tucker, attending the Forum to press the case on behalf of Leeds Bradford Airport, insisted that overseas people wanting to invest would look at Leeds and ask: “But how do we get there?” He added that reaching Leeds via London means an extra two hours per trip and similarly prompted the question: “Why can’t we fly direct?”
Mr Tucker added: “More attention needs to be given to air in a properly integrated transport proposal, as we too often fall into the trap of looking at transport proposals on their own without actually looking at how they are going to support and promote wider economic benefits. At the moment it is easy to get to London – but getting people directly here, we just don’t have that ability.”
The one area where everyone agreed that TfN had already achieved traction to underpin the Northern powerhouse initiative was rail. At present, catching a train is the only reliable way to cross the North – just as with stage coaches in the Wild West, but without any threat (for the most part at least) from marauding locals.
Blazing the rail trail is the FirstGroup, recently awarded the TransPennine Express (TPE) franchise and promising to take the service to a new level with new branding, high-speed trains, more seats and a corporate commitment to the Northern powerhouse project (see pages 4-5).
Chris Nutton, the First TPE director responsible for major projects, pointed out that even though a third of all long-distance journeys in the North are now made by rail, this still lagged behind the London area where it was two-thirds.
“While we are putting plans in place to pull people out of their cars – and they are currently choosing to travel by rail – the solution must be around all forms of public transport, as they are all complementary,” Mr Nutton said.
He went on to warn, however, that rail improvements needed to achieve a balance and not just be about speed: “Although the fastest journey time [between Leeds and Manchester] is 47 minutes and the aspiration is 30 minutes, we must not forget the massive opportunity that rail offers the smaller towns and villages along the route to thrive and grow. This should not just be all about the big cities, but about the small towns as well.”
With trains appearing to tick most of the boxes for the panellists, discussion turned to what is easily the most extensive form of public transport but one that remains well below the publicity radar: the bus network. Buses account for a billion journeys each year, and it is estimated that the network provides £2.5bn in annual economic benefits.
Nigel Foster, who chairs the transport group at Leeds Chamber of Commerce, saw buses offering a relatively quick-fix solution when most other strands of the potential strategic plan – such as High Speed 2 (HS2), which he had championed – were decades away.
“We already have examples of buses doing exactly what is needed and doing it quickly,” Mr Foster said. “In Leeds and Salford you now have Vantage busways [dedicated bus lanes to ensure buses avoid congestion delays] where demand was ahead of forecast and they ended up carrying 150,000 passengers within four weeks.
“For the bus user it is all about reliability, and this requires the operator and the public authority to work together to provide both an operational solution and, at the same time, an infrastructure solution. Get it right and people will use them.”
Ian Williams, also of the Leeds Chamber of Commerce, joined the discussion, noting that “bus operators are often last in the queue when it comes to planning”.
As always, however, the question was where the money was coming from in this time of austerity. While Leeds Chamber of Commerce had gone to the barricades to get their region into the HS2 plan, the proposed 30-year timescale and everescalating cost – and rumours that the line could now end in Crewe – were enough to raise doubts about whether the project would ever make it off the drawing board.
The underlying concern was that politics might prevent it from happening, and the panellists agreed with Jonathan Turton that the North’s transport infrastructure “shouldn’t be a political football”.
Mr Turton added: “We have spent a long time in the North having to put up with a make do and mend approach. Now we need a proper transformational investment, not just sticking plasters.” He later noted that it was time to put away the begging bowl: the North should put its hand in its own collective pocket, then demand that the Government matches it.
The situation in Scotland – where around £1bn was allocated to improve transport infrastructure between Glasgow and Edinburgh, an area with a combined population of just 2 million – was raised from the chair by Alasdair Nimmo of Super North.
This prompted Paul Hirst of Addleshaw Goddard to point out that the benefit-cost analysis of what happened in Scotland would not pass any test. “The Institute of Economic Affairs at the time called it ‘insane’,” he told the forum, “yet what it has delivered for people up there is huge.”
All the panellists agreed that a transformational sum was needed were the North ever to close the gap with London – the success of which had been built on a transport spend resulting in schemes such as Canary Wharf and eclipsing anything seen north of Watford in terms of economic return.
Nor should it be a case of simply catching up with London, insisted Ian Williams. “It should be a question of putting us ahead of the game, recognising we are in a competitive marketplace, making the case that this has got to happen because it is going to deliver x, y and z.”
Meanwhile, with the North still to agree a strategic transport plan and to seek funding for it, the Government has already allocated £28bn for Crossrail 2 in London. “What could we do with £28bn in the North? Pretty much everything,” Nigel Foster said.
“If we are serious about rebalancing the UK economy and serious about the Northern powerhouse, we do need to find a way to increase the level of investment in the North of England. The evidence is there that it will provide the results; we just need to do it.”
Nigel Foster – director of transport planning business at Fore Consulting and the former longest-serving chairman of Leeds Chamber of Commerce (where he now heads the Chamber’s transport group). Mr Foster has been highly influential in ensuring that Yorkshire is on the HS2 route map, as well as bringing Network Rail into major discussions concerning Leeds railway station. He is also a visiting professor in strategic transport studies at the University of Leeds.
Chris Nutton – major contracts director for First TransPennine Express (TPE). He is responsible for all major investment projects, which involves working with Network Rail to achieve the changes in the region needed for transport delivery under the new franchise agreement won by FirstGroup.
Nolan Tucker – planning director at WYG. He works on large strategic projects such as commercial and housing schemes which involve significant planning in terms of transport infrastructure, and he attended the Forum representing Leeds Bradford Airport, a major client for which WYG is involved in “promoting development in its purest sense and commercial development around the airport”.
Ben Still – the recently appointed managing director of West Yorkshire Combined Authority and part of the Transport for the North team, where he leads on the Northern powerhouse rail project. Formerly with Sheffield City Region, where he led the devolution negotiations, Mr Still has an extensive track record in the sector, having previously worked for the Department for Transport and also headed the South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive.
Ian Williams – director of business representation and policy at the Leeds, York and North Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce. He has been active in lobbying for transport investment in the region, including HS2, “from the early days, when the Chamber was a lone voice in the wilderness”. As a spokesperson for the Yes to High Speed Rail Campaign, Mr Williams has been pushing to ensure that the proposed new local HS2 station is properly integrated with existing services.
Jonathan Turton – director at KPMG specialising in large-scale infrastructure projects with a specific focus on transport. He is responsible for KPMG transport infrastructure practice across the North and has advised on major projects including the Mersey Gateway Bridge, and he is currently working with National Express on its bid for the Manchester Metrolink operations contract.
Paul Hirst – partner at Addleshaw Goddard, where leads his company’s national transport sector multimodal group, based in Leeds with offices in Manchester and London. He has been involved in rail franchising and rolling stock projects, working both with local authorities and rail operators and having recently worked with First TPE on its Hitachi high-speed bimodal train fleet acquisition.