Published:

Jonathan Werran is Chief Executive of Localis.

Politics and regional railways have had a somewhat peculiarly difficult history from the outset. At the opening of the Manchester and Liverpool railway on 15 September 1830, MP for Liverpool, William Huskisson, was attempting to clamber into the Duke of Wellington’s carriage on the steam locomotive ‘Northumbrian’ during a stop for water. He fell and was infamously run over and fatally maimed by Robert Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’ which, unfortunate to relate, was passing at that exact moment on the adjacent track.

Although this is a cautionary tale on the bizarre spectrum end of political fates (Huskisson was driven by Stephenson to Eccles where he died of his injuries), the future of rail connections outside the commuter focus of London and the South East does merit some serious attention across metro and retro, urban and rural divides ahead of the next general election.

In framing a localist and place-based approach to railways in the current economic, social and political climate, restoring confidence in our regional train services would present a number of benefits: it would be useful in helping to stimulate economic activity and recovery, in supporting employment growth and increased productivity in a restructured labour market, and in continuing to help meet ever stricter environmental and climate change objectives and targets.

Confidence will be crucial to the recovery and continued vibrancy of England’s ecosystem of urban areas, and investment vital in providing connectivity across the country to support more widely dispersed populations and economic activity. Regional connectivity also has a strong and immediate role to play in propping up our beleaguered leisure and hospitality sector, and other business sectors hit hardest by the pandemic.

Yet the view that rail investment alone will lead first to recovery and then onto levelling up underestimates the importance of strong local governance, carried out in partnership with business and community.

Metro transport

For the metro connections, despite the levels of prevarication we’ve come to expect from a major national infrastructure project – not to mention delays recently aided by the son of Swampy among other eco-activists – HS2 is firmly coming down the line from Euston to Birmingham.

As is the case with so many decisions from the Coalition years, the project still attracts controversy. The original business case rationale of cutting commute times to the capital to boost business performance and productivity within deluxe modern carriages has yielded to more prosaic arguments of increasing domestic rail capacity.

Yet the investment was always fundamentally totemic in what it communicated as deep support and commitment to Andy Street’s vision for the West Midlands and further out to Manchester, the Northern Powerhouse and the wider levelling up agenda. Which is not to say that our spending watchdogs won’t have a field day or fortnight evaluating the value for money angle, regardless of the funding fate overhanging the ambition for the eastern leg to Leeds and Sheffield, Nottingham and Derby.

Trainlines alone, however, cannot deliver regional growth, but must be part a cross-sectoral vision for recovery and renewal. Increasing investment and raising productivity in our city regions depends on strong integrated transport. Budget 2020 invested £4.2bn in intra-city transport settlements from 2022-23 allocating them to eight city regions across England. In Budget 2021, government confirmed capacity funding in 2021-22 for those city regions with the appropriate governance arrangements.

Through this funding, eligible city regions will be able to develop integrated transport plans based on local priorities. But consultations carried out as a part of Localis’s report with Green Alliance, The Route to Clean Growth, found that England’s largest mayoral regions – many of whom qualify for the intra-city transport settlement – have half the powers needed to adequately transform their local economies in the way needed to meet the challenges of climate change.

The Government’s decision in February to pull the plug on Transport for the North’s smart ticketing initiative mirrors a similar failure in the South East, and should be seen as worrying. It certainly doesn’t bode well for integrated transport as a strong factor in promoting clean growth at the local and regional level.

As Localis argued recently in ConHome on behalf of Oxford’s need to develop as a compact global city of strategic national importance, without devolved fiscal and growth powers, our key growth corridors don’t have a chance of addressing the economic, social and environmental changes promised in the 2019 manifesto and reiterated in The Plan for Growth.

Retro transport

Of course, the political importance of rail stretches far beyond the big-ticket city regions with devolution deals. On the rural and coastal plane, the sense of relief at overturning Dr Beeching’s cuts with a £500 million package was palpable. The loss of railway connections came as a severe body blow to many town economies up and down the country and in seaside areas especially.

Plans to reopen Northumberland’s Ahsington-Blyth-Tyne line and restore the Fleetwood route are strong Red Wall wins. At the other end of the country in the far South West, the restoration of the Exeter to Okehampton line is pretty straightforward, since it was in use for goods traffic and is set to be up and running by the end of the year. Lines that have become overgrown in the last five decades, such as the Launceston to Padstow line might make restoration of the North Cornwall economy more problematic.

The perennial problem for the restored lines will be one of providing sufficient demand to ensure profitability or break even, even in a new post-Covid age of nationalization. This alone suggests single carriage automatic electric trains may come as standard.

To attribute the promised reversal of Beeching to pure nostalgia-based electioneering, however, would be to ignore the impact of poor transport on parts of the country. We need better connectivity for social as much as physical mobility. As stated in evidence Localis gave to the All Party Parliamentary Group for Counties, poor access to transport affects education, training and work opportunities for the younger generation whose prospects have been most blighted by lockdown.

Again, improved connective infrastructure can only be a part of the whole. We must also consider how improving broadband services in areas of market failure could also help resolve some of the transport issues in an age of remote and blended working.

Double decker in the room

If there is a place-based elephant in the room, it is a nelly named bus. In this context, we must address the role of short-haul journeys that can be conveniently achieved by car or managed by bus. And it is to the recent publication of Bus Back Better we must look.

In his foreword, Boris Johnson said that building better bus services would be a ‘major act of levelling up’, and expressed a determination to share his experience as London mayor in ending the ‘classic vicious cycle’ of slow, more expensive services that deter passengers. In rural areas this might mean demand led services and smaller vehicles.

Ultimately, this will have to involve fixing the unworkable regional attempts to mimic Transport for London-style options for interoperability for fares and operators, a strategic compact between services, government mandated routes and leasing them. In essence it would involve transfiguring transport as we have experienced in the last year, from a market-oriented commodity to a public service.