Lo­cal rail­ways

BEN JONES ar­gues that the UK should be pay­ing greater at­ten­tion to de­vel­op­ing ur­ban rail­way net­works out­side of Lon­don

Rail (UK) - - Contents -

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.

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