BEN JONES argues that the UK should be paying greater attention to developing urban railway networks outside of London
RAIL analysis: should the UK be paying more attention to developing urban railway networks outside of London?
IN 2015 the average UK journey to work took 55 minutes. Although some ‘extreme commuters’ travel into London every day from the likes of Newark and Chippenham, the majority of journeys are short and reasonably local.
The average distance travelled to work, according to the 2011 UK Census, is around eight miles, but congestion in our towns and cities means that even journeys of less than ten miles can take an hour or more. As well as being a far from productive use of time, this is also a source of immense frustration and stress for commuters. Lengthening commutes and worsening congestion reduces not only the quality of life for travellers, but also the life expectancy of those living in communities along main transport arteries.
TUC research in 2015 showed a 72% increase in people commuting for more than two hours every day over the past decade, to more than three million. The biggest increases came not only in London, but also in the southwest of England, East Midlands and Wales. Anyone who travels regularly into the big northern cities, or across the Midlands, will also know that the transport infrastructure is failing to keep up with the demands of a UK population of 63 million, a figure that’s forecast to reach 75 million by 2040.
So why have HS2 and the expansion of Heathrow Airport been selected as the UK’s two ‘big ticket’ infrastructure projects? Neither addresses the shortdistance capacity and congestion issues that plague our towns and cities. In fact, both will exacerbate traffic problems by placing significant extra demand on the transport networks feeding into them. HS2 will have many benefits to the UK economy, but its impact will be diminished without better local transport around each hub.
The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) recently revealed that spending on transport infrastructure will be more than four times greater in London than across the north of England from 2016-17 - £1,943 per head compared to just £427 in the north. London is expected to account for 54% of all transport infrastructure spending in England from 2016-17. However, the picture is more complex, with spending per head set to be £682 in the North West, while Yorkshire and the Humber will receive the least investment of all regions in England, at just £190 per head. Completing Crossrail will cost £4.7 billion from 2016-17 onwards, while all northern transport projects combined will cost a total of £6.6bn.
According to the National Infrastructure Commission, 50% of Londoners use public transport to get to work, compared to just 16% in the rest of the UK. If governments are serious about reducing congestion across the rest of the country, rebalancing the nation’s economy away from London, cutting emissions and making the UK move more efficiently, more radical solutions are needed outside of the capital.
The Core Cities Group, which represents the eight largest English cities outside London (Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield) plus Cardiff and Glasgow, reports that its members are home to 19 million people and responsible for 28% of the combined economic output of England, Wales and Scotland.
By 2030, the eight English cities alone could add £222bn to the national economy, equivalent to the entire economy of Denmark. However, according to an Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) report in June 2016, there’s evidence that English cities are falling behind the rest of the UK - especially London - in terms of productivity and job creation. Public investment in London has outstripped the rest of the country, most obviously in its transport infrastructure, and helped it to achieve rapid growth, but at the expense of the rest of the UK.
In 2011, 45% of jobs in the English ‘core cities’ were held by commuters from outside the local authority area, and 17% from outside the wider metropolitan county (Industrial Communities Alliance, 2015). Different cities and conurbations require a range of solutions, but the S-Bahn (short for Stadtbahn or city railway) concept used in many European cities offers great potential for cutting congestion, improving journey times and contributing towards a better quality of life for urban dwellers.
There’s no precise definition, but S-Bahn sits somewhere between a high-frequency, mass transit metro system like the London Underground, and a conventional urban/interurban rail service or light metro. The best S-Bahn networks provide a ‘turn up and go’ service, where timetables become redundant. Stations at more frequent intervals take trains closer to communities and encourage residents out of their cars, especially where they are properly co-ordinated with local bus, tram and metro networks.
Overlaying an intensive network of high frequency, all-stations trains onto an existing railway requires substantial investment in new infrastructure – extra tracks, flying junctions to eliminate conflicting movements, new stations and additional platform capacity at existing stations, as well as new trains and depots, and even tunnels under city centres.
Cities such as Zurich, Frankfurt, Madrid and Vienna have all invested heavily, and successfully, in S-Bahn networks over the last few decades. Others, including Brussels, Moscow and Geneva, are in the process of rebuilding and extending railways in and around major cities to introduce ‘City Rail’ networks.
In the UK, the concept could be ideal for cities such as Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, which have established rail networks radiating out in all directions from the city centre.
Taking Leeds as an example,
a 15-minute frequency on lines to Harrogate, Wakefield, Selby, York, Ilkley, Bradford via Shipley or Pudsey and Halifax would do far more to transform the region’s public transport offering than the proposed HS3 link to Manchester – important though that will be.
Compare it with Nuremberg, a city with a population of just over half a million (517,498 in 2015). It is Germany’s 14th largest city and yet it enjoys a heavy-rail S-Bahn network carrying 45 million passengers a year from 74 stations on four lines totalling 139 miles. Like Leeds, it sits at the centre of a wider conurbation of around 3.5 million people, but travelling around and across Nuremberg, even at peak times, is quick and easy.
Few British cities enjoy the sort of extensive urban rail networks taken for granted by our neighbours. Only Glasgow and Liverpool, with their Victorian cross-city tunnels, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (T&W Metro) and Birmingham’s busy cross-city lines come anywhere near. Greater Manchester has Metrolink which, having taken over several former suburban rail routes, now exhibits some of the characteristics of an S-Bahn system. Elsewhere we rely on inter-urban and even inter-city services to do the ‘heavy lifting’, placing unnecessary extra pressure on those longer-distance trains.
A glance at any UK rail atlas will show potential candidates for ‘City Rail’. The East Midlands triangle of Derby, Nottingham and Leicester is regarded as one of the major regions of economic activity outside the capital, but rail links between the three cities, and their nearneighbours, are surprisingly poor, contributing to a heavily-congested road network. An East Midlands network could deliver huge benefits for this important region.
While there are potentially many benefits for cities and conurbations, the ‘City Rail’ concept could have even greater value for smaller towns on the periphery of large cities or at strategic points on the rail network. According to IPPR, the 20 small and medium cities with populations of more than 75,000 in northern England represent almost a third of the north’s economy (£82 billion) and have witnessed growth of 34% since 2009. However, further development is inhibited by poor links with their big-city neighbours.
Or take RAIL’s home city of Peterborough, which sits on a railway crossroads between the East Coast Main Line and crosscountry lines. Routes into the UK’s fastest-growing city suffer from worsening traffic congestion. The population has increased from 156,000 in 2001 to over 190,000 today and many workers travel in from surrounding towns such as Stamford, Bourne and Spalding. Train services between Peterborough and its neighbours could hardly be worse, where they exist at all. But, a frequent crosscity service linking Stamford and Spalding with Whittlesey, March and the massive development at Hampton, close to the ECML south of the city, could entice many commuters out of their cars.
Such networks require longterm strategic planning, funding and commitment from national and regional governments, local councils, transport authorities, and the backing of city residents. However, there’s ample proof that investment in decent urban transport makes cities more ‘liveable’, and creates new opportunities for investment, jobs and better mobility for all sections of society.
While the adaptation of existing lines offers a good start, many cities have also taken steps to incorporate major traffic generators such as hospitals, schools, universities and airports into their systems by building new lines and city centre tunnels to take people directly where they need to go. There’s a proven link between good public transport and increased business investment in cities.
Switzerland has taken more than 50 years and billions of pounds of investment to develop its muchenvied public transport networks, and Germany’s S-Bahn networks have been growing for more than 40 years. They continue to develop as cities grow and towns surrounding major centres clamour to be included.
It’s clear that a similar process of gradual development would be required to bring better urban railways to British cities, especially given the current economic conditions and political uncertainty, but even that could have benefits for Britain’s rail industry, civil engineering companies and train builders. A rolling programme of investment in new and/or rebuilt lines and new rolling stock could put an end to the stop/start cycle of railway investment that has proved so damaging and caused engineering talent to leak away from the industry. ‘City Rail’ could also be the ideal vehicle to help the new City Regions across the Midlands and the north of England establish their identity and promote their existence to a (so far) indifferent population.
Longer term, the skills and knowledge used to design, construct and operate these railways could become a valuable export tool for the UK, just as it is for Germany, France and other established railway engineering nations.
But where will the money come from, I hear you ask? It’s a fair question and one that can’t be avoided. Given the state of Network Rail’s finances and the noises being made about budget constraints over the coming years, a combination of government investment via regeneration grants, local taxes raised by the new City Regions, private investment from property developers and levies on local businesses (as used successfully by Transport for London for Crossrail) could be used to generate the necessary funding. City Regions will be key to lobbying for this investment, and persuading local businesses that it will be money well spent.
Urban rail isn’t as ‘sexy’ as high-speed rail, but there’s little doubt that it could make a much greater difference to the lives of people in cities. In difficult times, when the Government repeatedly states that it is looking to stimulate economic activity, reduce inequality and create skilled jobs beyond the capital, a programme of investment in high-quality urban railways could bring far greater benefits to the UK and its people than either highspeed rail or a deeply unpopular expansion of Heathrow.
“Investment in decent urban transport creates new opportunities for investment, jobs and better mobility.”
Northern 319363 arrives at Liverpool Lime Street on April 14, with the 1031 from Wigan North Western. This electric multiple unit was built in the late 1980s and was cascaded north to operate on various new electrified routes. Infrastructure expenditure in the North is still four times less than that in London.