Have recent rail enhancements delivered economic benefits? PHILIP HAIGH studies new reports that suggest while improvements are popular, economic and employment benefits can be hard to quantify
The difficulty developing rail links.
OPENING Oxford Parkway station and providing direct trains to London Marylebone has made the local area a better place to work and live.
That’s the initial conclusion from a report written by transport consultant Steer Davies Gleave (now Steer) for the Department for Transport (DfT). It’s initial because the station only opened in October 2015, and it takes time for the benefits or the downside of new infrastructure to show through.
Steer notes that Oxford Parkway station has made rail easier to reach from the area north of Oxford - provided passengers can drive or get a lift to the station.
There’s no housing or businesses in the station’s immediate vicinity. The houses of Kidlington are a mile or so north, and Oxford’s housing that spreads northwards along the Woodstock and Banbury Roads ceases a little beyond the A40 bypass (around a mile short of the new station).
The station sits in Oxford’s green belt, which limits development. Steer argues that the new station could generate interest from property developers, although it adds that its easy road access might limit this.
The DfT published Steer’s report around the time of a new report from Transport for New Homes (TfNH). This report highlighted the poor public transport links that come with new housing. Transport for New Homes complained that England’s rush to build new houses meant they were often erected in places only accessible by car, and by developers who failed to provide infrastructure for anything but cars.
TfNH said it found only one area of new homes with a new station, and that was Cranbrook (near Exeter). It said that rail offered unimpeded access to Exeter, and that Cranbrook’s hourly services was already full and standing in the rush hour.
That’s a sharp contrast with Oxford Parkway, which has a station but no local housing, so tieing passengers into using cars and roads to reach it.
Although TfNH’s report is primarily concerned with developing new housing that includes good walking, cycling and bus links to other communities, it delivers a sharp message about the difficulties of developing rail links: “The account given to us by the [Cranbrook] local authority officers of the many, many years of patient preparation of business cases for the station, extensive and complex negotiation with Network Rail and other parties, filled us with admiration that they had persisted so long. It made us aware of the many barriers to delivery of local rail. Funding road capacity appears much easier.”
Kirkstall Forge (near Leeds) provides an example which bucks the trend that TfNH found. Its station opened in 2016 and now has a half-hourly service to Leeds, six minutes away (Bradford is 15 minutes by rail).
The former industrial site is set to receive more than 1,000 homes, while its developers are also planning commercial, retail and leisure space as well as building a primary school.
There’s little at the site now beyond an office block, but the development holds the promise of countering many of TfNH’s
criticisms of new housing estates.
While businesses may be attracted to Oxford Parkway’s surrounding area, Steer’s report says: “Few businesses are currently located in this area, however, and this effect is not likely to be significant in the absence of the release of land through planning policy or efforts to support development.” In other words, local authorities need to actively help, rather than just hoping good things happen.
Separately, TfNH argues that businesses are an important part of communities, providing employment for those living locally. Otherwise, new developments simply become dormitories for commuters, with little life of their own.
Oxford Parkway station has attracted some passengers who used to use Oxford station, helping ease road congestion in the town, but it has also attracted passengers who would not have travelled before the new station opened. This has led to more trips into London and other destinations along the Chiltern Main Line. There is now more inward commuting to Oxford from places such as High Wycombe on the Chiltern Main Line, the report says.
Steer’s study of Oxford Parkway is one of another five reports looking at the effect of recent rail investment. The others cover Falmouth, Bromsgrove, Swindon, Corby and Leamington Spa.
The consultant finds a mixed picture where it’s difficult to split other factors from those of the rail improvements. Chief of these is what Steer calls the ‘Great Recession’ that followed 2008’s banking collapse. However, it draws some conclusions from comparing the areas under examination with others that have similar characteristics but no rail improvements.
For Corby, this comparator was Daventry. Steer found that Corby had a greater proportion of local residents using rail since the new station opened in 2009 than did Daventry. Research showed that 27% of Corby residents said the station was an important consideration in deciding where to live (for Daventry, the figure was 21%). Before Corby station opened, residents had to travel 20 minutes to Kettering to catch trains, similar to the trip for Daventry residents to Rugby.
Overall, Steer noted: “The new rail service and station at Corby, through making rail travel more convenient for local people, has encouraged additional rail trips, both newly generated and from other modes, although the rail usage data does suggest the majority of trips were abstracted from other local stations at Kettering and Market Harborough.”
Although Steer found some evidence that Corby station’s opening had improved local employment, that evidence was weak and could not be linked to the station. Likewise, Steer found little proof that the station had aided local productivity.
Leamington Spa received a series of improvements to the Chiltern Main Line that cut journey times to London from 2011. In the five years that followed, Steer found a growth rate of 5.6%, but this was below the report’s comparator, Rugby (7.8%) and the West Midlands average of 6.6%.
Population growth has been similar across all three areas, so Steer concludes that Leamington Spa’s improvements have had little effect in attracting more people to live in the town. Likewise, it found little positive effect on local employment.
Falmouth’s improvements came in 2009, allowing a better analysis of what they have delivered for the town.
Services doubled to two trains per hour along its branch line to Truro and, since then, annual growth has been 8% compared with 1% at comparator Gunnislake that had no service increases, and 3% for Cornwall generally. Population growth has been just higher than the county average, but much higher than Gunnislake. Of those moving to Falmouth since 2010, 39% said the rail service was an important consideration.
Employment grew 8%, compared with Gunnislake’s 15% decline, with Falmouth becoming more of a tourist attraction. However, Steer warns: “The effect of rail investment is difficult to isolate definitively since it appears that Gunnislake was particularly badly affected by the Great Recession.”
Nevertheless, Steer reckons that Falmouth’s rail improvement helped it survive the recession in better shape than Gunnislake. It suggests that better rail links helped Falmouth’s tourist trade and hence employment, but finds no economic uplift attributable to the better railway.
Improvements to rail services for Swindon and Bromsgrove are still being delivered, so Steer’s work for these two areas forms the basis for further examination. It expects both to benefit.
Overall, these reports highlight the difficulty in isolating the benefits of rail improvements from the wider economy. Comparators provide one method, but they need careful selection and can never provide a perfect comparison.
For example, Steer selected Gunnislake as its comparator for Falmouth on the basis that both had a similar hourly rail service, before Falmouth’s improved. Yet Gunnislake is rural with a population of 6,000 with little local employment, while Falmouth is a town of 21,000.
Overall, Steer’s reports show that the benefits of rail improvements are weak on an economic and employment basis, but they do make travel easier and are usually popular in their local area. Whether popularity is sufficient to justify spending large sums on rail enhancements remains to be seen.
“Transport for New Homes argues that businesses are an important part of communities, providing employment for those living locally. Otherwise, new developments simply become dormitories for commuters, with little life of their own.”
Chiltern Railways 168214 stands at Oxford Parkway on October 26 2015, on the first weekday the station was open. A Steer report suggests that Oxford Parkway station has made rail easier to reach from the area north of Oxford - provided passengers can drive or get a lift to the station.