How Merseyrail dared to be different

Merseyrail Electrics train at Old Roan crossing the Leeds Liverpool canal.

“Liverpool, surreal. Liverpool, sardonic. Liverpool battered dignity. Liverpool, flotsam of maritime memory. Liverpool never quite what it was because everything it does changes what it does … Liverpool, welcoming the world. Liverpool cutting edge, keeping pace, dropping anchor.”

Extract from The North by Paul Morley

Liverpool is different. And so is its very own rail network. None of the other city regions has a high tempo, heavy rail electric network quite like this. A not quite S-Bahn. Bright yellow electric trains that radiate out across the Wirral, chalking off the town and suburban centres at regular intervals, before feeling the pull of urban gravity and returning to a whirl around city centre underground loop before being flung out again back towards the suburbs. At the same time another route uses a tunnel sitting above the city centre loop as its trains shuttle north to south, to and fro across the conurbation.

The nearest equivalent to Merseyrail Electrics would be the Tyne and Wear Metro. The other bold example from those far away fearless modernist times, the 1970s, of taking a ramshackle fragmented commuter train network and using new city centre tunnels and rolling stock to gift the area what amounted to a new rail network. A network that reorganised and re-imagined the way people used, thought about and understood their conurbation.

Liverpool is different. The first iteration of the Strategic Rail Authority was a fairly dire combination of Department for Transport lifers and neo-liberal true believers who were passing through. Consequently, the SRA was neither strategic nor authoritative, leaving barely a ripple on the surface when it finally sank beneath the waves. However, there was one act of bravado which somehow slipped through. In 2003, the SRA handed over the Merseyrail Electrics contract to Merseytravel and delivered by a Serco/Abellio joint venture of up to 25 years and with enough funding attached so they could quietly get on with it. The smoke had hardly cleared from the uniforms of the previous franchisee that the staff relished burning, when performance and passenger satisfaction on the new franchise went up like a rocket. It was ‘Miseryrail’ no longer. A text book example of the instant boost to performance, made by having those in charge of a service in the same geography as those operating.

That stability and local control has provided the basis for this unusual operation to push on. It’s not just the unique nature of this network that makes it feel different to the user, it’s also (give or take at the margins) the fact that all of the stations are staffed all of the time. Whereas on other networks too many local heavy rail stations were notable for their lost and abandoned, take it or leave it, ambiance (their lop-sided station signs pock marked by the impact of air rifle pellets), this was not the case on Merseyrail Electrics. It felt like a network that wanted your business; one where someone was watching over you.

Franchise control has helped Merseytravel to build on that base in multiple ways – through working with Serco/Abellio as the franchisee to import some Dutch innovation on cycle hire and facilities through to combining convenience stores with booking office functions. Franchise control has gone alongside giving more of the city region’s significant sub-centres such as St Helens and Newton-le-Willows – the interchanges they merit – as well as a new hub at Liverpool South Parkway.

And there’s been innovation in suburbia too. Including an eco-refit for Ainsdale station and a brand new station at Maghull North specifically to ensure a new housing development had good public transport provision in place (before the concrete on the carports had set).

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All the stations are now being prepared for the biggest change to the network in years – new rolling stock. When I was in Liverpool a few weeks back I went to see the mock-up of the new rolling stock (the first trains are being built now), which was being temporarily stored in a ventilation plant for one of the road tunnels under the Mersey. And the more you look, the more you see (it’s a very realistic mock up!). The doors have a crafty ramp which extends to provide as near level access as you are going to get. The trains will be fully connected allowing for a fully connected control centre and fully connected passengers. Passengers who, when they aren’t mainlining the results of their Wi-Fi connections, will be able to see the view ahead on the railway line through the cab window and doors (unless the driver flicks a switch and the windows go dark that is!). They will be nippier and higher capacity too. They will also be capable of being powered by both third rail and overhead electricity as well as having ‘passive provision’ for a battery pack. In short, these publicly owned (by the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority) trains are setting the standard for urban commuter trains.

Their ‘go anywhere’ capability also lowers the bar for more network extensions. Merseyrail broke the bounds of its original tight operating area some time ago by reaching down into deepest Cheshire with extensions to Chester and Ellesmere Port in the early 1990s.  The new horizons of Skelmersdale, Wrexham and Preston now beckon.

However, looming above all that is the need to do something about Liverpool Central – which sits on both the city centre loop and link lines, and which is struggling to cope with the trains and passenger numbers it already has. As its name suggests, Liverpool Central is also a prime commercial site – which brings both the blessing of potential developer contributions but the curse of trying to expand a station located in such a tight spot both below, at and above ground level.

Meanwhile, the combined authority is also taking up the former transport secretary up on his offer to look at taking over the Merseyrail infrastructure to create a vertically integrated network. The deal maker – or deal breaker – is likely to be around who stands behind what level of risk. Whilst the city region maps out its own destiny on its own rail network, frustration abounds over what the future holds for long distance services beyond its borders. Already relatively poorly connected to the intercity network for a city of its size, what it will end up with from the shifting sands of HS2, the TransPennine upgrade and Northern Powerhouse Rail is far from clear. And if Liverpool Central is a pinch point on Merseyrail Electrics, Lime Street (despite the welcome recent expansion of capacity) and its approaches, is a pinch point for the city’s aspirations for high speed rail connections.

This is exacerbated because Liverpool is as serious a port city as it ever was (though this is not as immediately visible as it used to be) and can now accommodate the largest container ships in the world. The craziness of routing the majority of the nation’s maritime imports and exports through the busiest corner of the country (the South East) – at vast public expense in knock-on road and rail infrastructure – is under challenge from Liverpool and the North’s other increasingly punchy and determined ports. But accommodating a growing stream of monster container trains winding their way out of the docks is another reason why Liverpool needs to know what the plan is for increasing rail capacity both due south and due east.

As well as its rail ambitions, the city region is also progressing its options on the future of the bus network, potentially opening the way to giving the city region a fully integrated public transport network where a modern bus network complements the country’s most technically advanced commuter trains. Trains that are capable of plugging more places into the heart of a city centre that has definitely got its buzz back. With both the two main UK political parties backing city regions to take control of their local public transport networks, this unique city could well be on the brink of finding another way to be different.

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group

The blog first appeared in Passenger Transport Magazine.

We know the pledges – but what’s the plan?

In signing up to climate change pledges politicians are also signing up to a seismic public policy shift – especially for the way we travel

There is no planet B

Climate change is the challenge of the century, both in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating the worst effects of the continuum we are already on. We all kind of knew that. But the implications were just too hard to face. However, now that Greta Thunberg emerged to embody our unappeasable guilty conscience – city after city is declaring a climate emergency or a net zero target, or both. Nationally MPs have approved a motion to declare an environment and climate emergency and the UK Government became the first country to legally commit to become a net zero emitter of all greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

In signing up to these pledges politicians of left and right are also implicitly signing up to the biggest public policy shift of the century. Because it implies government, nationally and locally, taking more control to remake the economy and society on sustainability principles and the rapid transformation of whole sectors of the economy, like transport and the built environment. All on a timescale so tight you wouldn’t want to start from where we were 10 years ago – never mind where we are now. And all at a time when our society feels horribly divided, paralysed by Brexit and with optimism a dwindling resource.

Some challenge. Especially if we intend to back up those big declarations with action and especially for transport (given the sector is now the largest greenhouse gas emitter in the UK). We will need a 21st century carbon reduction mania in transport to rival the railway mania that transformed the UK in the 19th century.

It will mean electrifying transport as rapidly as a greener grid can support it and as quickly as battery costs and availability come down. But this is going to take time, has its own significant challenges (including the embodied carbon in making these vehicles), so there is also a need to get people travelling in more efficient ways, such as 70 people sharing the same vehicle (a bus) or moving about without the need for any sort of engine (on a bike).

As our recent Number Crunch report shows, in the largest urban centres we are already seeing a shift to the more carbon and energy efficient transport modes. Cordon counts for the Birmingham am peak for example show a big increase in rail and a decrease in car commuting. Similar patterns can be seen in some of the other largest urban centres too – including in some areas a marked increase in cycling (though often from a low base) alongside strong growth in rail.

Largely missing from the modal shift party so far however is the bus. But the imperative provided by the need for rapid action on climate must surely be an opportunity for the bus to make a comeback. Especially because you can turn the funding up on bus services and see the benefits quickly. Handy too to have expanded bus services if you are planning to make it more difficult and expensive to drive, because some kind of alternative is there right away. It worked for Ken Livingstone when, as mayor of London, he flooded the streets with buses whilst simultaneously introducing congestion charging in 2003. He got re-elected too.

But this is not an opportunity that the bus industry currently looks in the state to capitalise on. Not structurally (Livingstone couldn’t have done what he did in a deregulated environment) nor when two of the ‘Big Five’ groups are up for sale and one of those is looking distinctly shop soiled. Indeed, with Greater Manchester now well down the franchising route and the end of Britain’s Big Five (and their unity in opposing franchising starting to crumble) there’s the feeling of an end of an era in the sector. A fresh start will be needed if the bus is to take the opportunity that net zero offers – including perhaps a major rethink of bus design (both exterior and interior) so that its face fits with both the look and feel that cities are aiming for and what might get travellers out of their cars.

However, much as the bus does have an opportunity from the climate crisis, the fact is that the car is still king outside the largest urban centres. More journeys are made by car than by any other means and much of the UK has also been made into a palace for King Car. For many people the places where they shop, work and spend their leisure time have been built on the rock solid assumption that there was no need to even consider that people might get there by any other means than the car. Even some of the places where we build buses and trains these days can be found in the middle of a car park in the middle of a nowhere that you can’t easily reach by bus or train. Of course these areas still need a public transport service, but given the overwhelming trip share of the car in vast tracts of the UK which have been built in the car’s image there must also be a role for increasing car occupancy rates through car sharing and through reducing the need for ownership through car clubs. But to make any of this happen we need some bold leadership. Cities and city regions that have signed up to net zero will also need to show leadership by looking at what they are spending their budgets on and to what extent these choices are making the biggest in-roads into reducing carbon fastest.

We also need national leadership on decarbonising transport – in particular on what the fiscal and taxation framework is going to be for vehicles which will in turn give consumers and manufacturers more confidence to embark on the ‘road to zero’ than they do now. The ‘road to zero’ needs to be short, straight, smooth and well lit, not the long, dark and unmade road it is now.

We also need a shift in spending priorities away from an inter-urban road building jamboree which is increasing carbon emissions whilst pointlessly redistributing traffic congestion and creating countless more high carbon, car dependent sprawl opportunities. This is money that could and should be spent on a rolling programme of rail electrification, taking measures to switch more short car journeys to active travel and increasing the journey share of low and ultra low emission buses on key corridors.

These are big vertiginous policy shifts – but far from unprecedented. The Netherlands was heading down our car dependent route until they made a big shift to the bike in the 1970s. Cities like Stockholm have a market share for public transport of 49%. London’s cycle superhighways, road pricing and taking out the gyratories would have been beyond the wildest aspirations of green transport campaigners 20 years ago. On power generation, carbon emissions halved in the UK in the eight years to 2016. Going further back we converted every gas appliance (20 million of them) across the country for natural gas in around a decade from 1967. Cities and city regions are also showing that they are increasingly prepared to take more direct control to make things happen for other goals too – from taking over tram systems and bus networks to providing utilities and building social housing.

On climate and carbon (as with much else besides) it feels these days that we are ‘poised between hope and despair’. And there is clearly the option of not looking Greta in the eye and sticking to the big statements without making the hard choices. Because the implications of the climate challenge is all too difficult, because other nations or sectors need to act first, and because, who knows, something may turn up. At the same time, taken together, the transport policy shifts may seem daunting, but broken down they are far from impossible – and all beneficial. The big pledges have been made on climate and now we can expect a new phase of much more intense scrutiny of the choices that are made on transport policy as a result.

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group

The blog first appeared in Passenger Transport Magazine.

How can we support towns like Batley?

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There are so many policy reports on transport and cities you could stack them up as high as the Beetham Tower. However, the pile of reports on transport and towns would struggle to get higher than the front step. Of course, getting big city transport networks right deserves attention. Wider city region economies, and indeed the national economy, won’t work if our biggest cities can’t move. However, the era is now over when all urban policy reports had to focus on cities. It is no longer okay for the de facto economic policy for post-industrial towns to be one of ‘trickle down’ from the growth of increasingly glossy and high rise city centres and for the message for towns to be ‘smarten yourself up, as realistically the best it gets is you may have the honour of becoming a dormitory town’.

The days of that approach are gone because city region mayors cover voting territories far larger than core cities, and because those places that felt left behind and unheard made themselves heard very clearly with the outcome of the European referendum. A sign of the times is that both the mayors of West Midlands and Greater Manchester now have specific towns policies and initiatives, and rightly so.

Last month we followed up our report, About Towns – How transport can help towns thrive, with a roundtable in Batley Town Hall to talk towns and transport with transport authorities and organisations, government reps, towns-focussed NGOs, academics and thinkers. It was a fitting place to have the event. Like so many of the many post-industrial towns in the city regions Batley has a history of graft, ingenuity, specialisation and boldness which has left behind a fabulous and dramatic built environment. In Batley’s case the town originally boomed out of the local invention of new cheap textiles (Shoddy and Mungo) which the world couldn’t get enough of. Indeed a magnificent avenue of showrooms (battered but mostly still there) was built from the station into the town. Among those who came to buy were representatives of both sides in various conflicts placing orders in bulk for their respective armies’ uniforms.

The attitude that ‘anything a city can do we can do too’ also persisted in towns like Batley well into the twentieth century. In Batley’s case some of the biggest stars in show business performed at the Batley Varieties in the sixties and seventies after a local magnate opened up this Vegas-inspired cabaret nightclub. Louis Armstrong, Shirley Bassey, Roy Orbison, Eartha Kitt were among the stars who came to town. Heady days. But the Varieties is long gone, along with the textile industry.

So what can transport do to help the many towns like Batley thrive in the here and now? Perhaps the biggest lesson of our report is that standalone transport capital projects are unlikely to be enough on their own to turn a struggling town centre around. That’s not to say that building a high quality interchange isn’t the right thing to do, but don’t just build it and walk away. It needs to be part of something bigger.

There are some good examples in South Yorkshire (like Barnsley and Rotherham) and Tyne & Wear (South Shields) where new or improved stations or interchanges have been, or will be, tied into wider projects to locate new colleges or training facilities close to, or as part of, the transport development.

So the South Shields 365 Town Centre Vision includes a new transport interchange alongside a new railway skills academy for the Tyne & Wear Metro as well as improvements to the market place and a new central library. Making the new interchange into gateway and key component of a wider investment will bring footfall and a buzz.

Batlet station grab

Ideally too capital measures need to sit alongside revenue measures to make the use of the public transport that serves these new capital schemes more affordable. So for example the ‘MyTicket’ offers for young people in the Liverpool City Region which offered unlimited travel for £2.20 a day led to a 142% increase in bus trips by young people.

The transport sector is also a significant employer in towns, including in distribution and logistics, taxis and private hire and on the buses. As a sector it can support people in towns by paying good wages, building skills and supporting career development.

The transport sector can also work with what have become known as local ‘anchor institutions’. This is a concept from the States which is that there are some large institutions which aren’t going anywhere else (usually, but not exclusively, public sector), such as schools and universities and which are therefore anchors for the local economy. They could be more so if they used their considerable purchasing power to buy more goods and services from local businesses.

The town of Preston is the most celebrated example of this approach so far in the UK with the council seeking to ensure that as far as is possible the local state buys local. Examples of this kind of approach in the transport sphere include the West Midlands Metro extension in the Black Country, where the scheme promoter is aiming for 80% of the project’s supply chain to be with local businesses.

Pulling back to the big picture, perhaps one of the best examples of thinking through a coordinated approach to maximising the benefits of new transport investment remains the Borders Railway. This rail reopening formed part of a much wider long term plan for revitalising the towns and places it serves through a long term, multi-agency strategy to create new transport hubs, provide new premises for small businesses, boost tourism and open up opportunity by providing access to employment and education opportunites.

At Batley Town Hall the fascinating roundtable discussion used our report as a jumping off point to range far and wide, including exploring how towns can adapt to an era where ‘transactional’ shopping is going online and the larger chains are pulling back to the biggest centres. Can towns trade on their strengths of manageable size and scale for walking around, an often very attractive built environment and a strong sense of identity to become places that offer something different and complementary to the cities, and something deeper than is available online? Their potential to offer a unique experience – with their own character, identity and local goods and services. Human places which offer opportunities for contact, kindness and connection in person which, in doing so, help to tackle loneliness and isolation. Places that are about doing rather than just buying. And not just the few towns which become the raw material for the incoming young, economically privileged and connected to energetically fashion into the next hipster haven – but the many more towns which more resemble hipster-free Batley.

Part of the answer to this could be providing more support for people like our host at the town hall, the outgoing mayor, and Batley born and bred, Cllr Gwen Lowe. Gwen is also the chair of the Friends of Batley station which is where we went after the roundtable for lunch at the community café she and the Friends have worked tirelessly to establish in what was a very run down station. It’s not been easy to get as far as they have in getting the café in place, as well as a garden in tribute to murdered local MP Jo Cox, alongside other improvements (like a painted mural in the subway).

Over lunch Gwen told us about the challenges, setbacks and slow progress in getting the railway to pull together to provide consistent support in helping them to make the improvements they are volunteering to make to the station (as well, as on a more positive note, about how the work of the Friends has helped make Batley feel better about itself in general, and those who have been active in the Friends in particular). It wouldn’t take much from big organisations to put some rocket boosters on the work of the Friends so that they could give Batley the welcoming, friendly, greener station it needs.

And that perhaps echoes one of the big themes of the day itself. Towns can help themselves – but they need big institutions (including the transport sector) to think more carefully, and work more collaboratively, in order to support them.

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group

The blog first appeared in Passenger Transport Magazine.