Out and about in towns

Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire

It would be fair to say that I’ve covered a lot of ground, literally, in the 23 years which I have worked on transport in the West Midlands.

But it was during a recent secondment to the Urban Transport Group that I really hit the road (and rails) – travelling from Strathclyde to the West of England, and all city regions in between – while writing the report About towns: How transport can help towns thrive. Below are a few personal thoughts and reflections on what I’ve seen and heard as I’ve travelled the country for this project.

Firstly, like many urban areas the world over, the story of our towns centres around how people and places can make a living post-coal. Most of our city regions are on coalfields, and directly or indirectly depended on coal as they industrialised.

Some places have adapted, survived and are clearly on their way to prospering post-coal. There were signs of public investment and signs of private investment (the latter following the former perhaps); there were many examples of attractive high quality public realm; there were people busy going about their business, clearly with money in their pocket; and in some places a real sense of community spirit, or “gemeinschaft”, as the Germans call it.

Some places though are still struggling to achieve this change, with wealth fizzling out the further you travel from the buzz and activity of the regional centre. These places are characterised by unemployment, low education and skill levels, hollowed out high streets and low productivity – all of which, as our report argues, transport can help to overcome.

Thriving towns through transport

So how does transport help people in these towns lead more prosperous lives?

The overarching thought is that transport has a role to play as part of something bigger: concerted, long term efforts to make towns good places to grow up and live, good places for businesses to invest in and provide good work, and places where neighbouring towns and cities and the countryside, which are all just down the road, are within grasp of all residents.

One of the issues to tackle is how to get people to contemplate visiting our post-industrial towns in the first place. Negative perceptions need changing but can be changed. Trendy travel guides have details of many cities and towns across Europe and the US which, 20 or 30 years ago, many people would have said “really?”

What was striking was how first impressions matter. When you get off a train in an unfamiliar town, if you see graffiti, tatty information displays, or litter, you get a sense that this is a place that’s been left behind. In sharp contrast, when you step onto a platform at a clean, bright station or interchange where the people responsible clearly care, it can make a big difference to your initial reaction – you feel welcome.

Many of the towns I visited were once grand old places in their prime. Much of the new work that has come to these towns in recent years hasn’t seemed to emulate those proud places of old where there was clearly dignity of labour. The timeless phrase of trade unionism: “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work” doesn’t seem to ring true for some of the new jobs which have been created in these towns on our coalfields. And there is a wider societal debate to be had on what are fair and acceptable levels of benefits for people not in work.

Beyond national legislation for statutory minimum wage levels, working conditions and benefit levels, transport has a role. It can help attract people to visit more interesting and attractive town centres. Transport gets workers to work and students to skills. It can get people in need of healthcare to doctors’ surgeries and all the other places where people need to connect up with one another. As significant local employers, transport organisations and businesses can be exemplary employers providing that fair pay for fair work, and act as anchor institutions, spending significant sums of money on local supply chains and support services.

The bigger picture

Taking a slightly wider look, a big challenge is to help people move across our city regions and towns to all the opportunities afforded by a bigger geography. And key to this is enabling movement in ways which don’t clog up our already congested motorways and main roads. We need cool, Scandinavian-quality designed, German-quality engineered, rail and rapid transit networks, which, while we’re at it, are integrated with decent local bus networks and are really easy and cheap to use through smart ticketing.

As well as this big investment, what is also striking is how important it is to get the smaller details right. I often found that local bus services in unfamiliar towns were a confusing mixture of different liveries, colours, numbers, tickets, rules and conditions. I needed to be bolder, or in receipt of a helping hand, if I were to venture across the threshold of one of these services.

I travelled extensively by rail as part of the project. My impression of rail in the UK from this experience is that we have a lot of rail services, with our main centres well joined up with regular services on the national rail network. What we don’t have is enough carriages, enough space for comfortable seating, and fast enough trains: some line speeds are dismal. What was also a bit irksome was that often trains would be a bit late, or a door wouldn’t work, or the coffee trolley wouldn’t accept cards that day – lots of little things that collectively add up – some operators seemed to be able to do these things consistently better than others.

As I worked on the project, a recurring thought I had was that it would be great if central, city region and local government were able to work together efficiently for the common purpose of inclusive growth and regeneration of our city region towns: a bit like some sort of painting of a picture. Central Government specifies the overall aims of the painting, the general theme of the work and the types of things to consider for the composition. The city region is then able to select the tools it needs and sketch the outline of the picture and put on broadbrush colours. The local level then completes the picture with the finer grain of detail, in accord with how a good picture will go down well with the local public.

It is this joined up approach that could put our post-industrial urban areas back on the map, and get people out and about in thriving and prosperous towns.

Jake Thrush is Associate Policy Advisor at Transport for West Midlands, and the primary author of the About towns report whilst on secondment to Urban Transport Group

Grayling’s review can get rail devolution back on track

Merseyrail train in new livery at Stanley Dock on canal bridge.

Last month, the government launched what it called a ‘root and branch’ review of the UK’s railways. And rightly so. On the same day as transport secretary Chris Grayling announced the review, the ORR published the results of its own interim inquiry into the May timetable meltdown, concluding that nobody took charge with a “gap in responsibility and accountability” for mistakes that were made (read more on p20).

The ORR’s initial findings expose an important question: who has – and who should have – responsibility for the effective running of our railways? We believe that urban rail systems must be controlled locally, by the regions and cities which are served by them.

Rail devolution has been a huge success story – for passengers, for cities and for regions. Take, for example, Merseyrail Electrics (now fully devolved to the transport authority Merseytravel): it was – prior to devolution in 2003 – dubbed ‘miseryrail.’ Just a year after devolution, passenger satisfaction leapt from 82% to 90%, and it now stands at a staggering 92%.

We have seen a similar pattern of success in Scotland, where its railway has become  a symbol of the nation’s ambition. Its extensive rail reopening programme – which followed in the wake of the first devolution agreement in 1999 – is unrivalled, with more stations and rail lines opening in Scotland than any other part of the UK in the last 15 years or so. This has resulted in a surge in patronage, and extended beyond rail travel itself, with the additional benefits of boosted local economies through urban regeneration and tourism and new housing schemes. Further stages of devolution have handed more control to Scottish ministers, including over Network Rail’s budget and the ScotRail franchise – leading to a programme of electrification to increase capacity, provide faster journeys, and reduce carbon emissions.

The capital too has enjoyed the fruits of devolved rail systems. Until TfL took over in 2007, London’s orbital railways had suffered from unreliable services and rundown stations, endured under both British Rail and when privatised by government. Yet under the control of TfL, they flourished, with patronage increasing by 32% in the first year alone. TfL’s understanding of the city’s integrated transport, economic and social needs meant demand that had not been envisaged by central government and private train operators was recognised, planned for and exceeded.

This example demonstrates how devolution beats remote control by Whitehall. This is because cities and regions understand how important rail is to their local context far better than any centralised rail decision-making machine could. They see how modern and efficient rail services are important to travellers every day, important to reducing road congestion (and associated air pollution and carbon reduction), important to building strong agglomeration economies, and important to meeting housing needs without leading to more sprawl and road congestion.

Grayling has promised to leave no stone unturned and makes bold recommendations for the future as part of the review. Will he be bold enough to put power into the places our railways serve and get devolution back on track? We certainly hope so, and we look forward to feeding into the review.

Jonathan Bray is Director of the Urban Transport Group

This piece was originally published in Rail Technology Magazine

What can the UK learn from Seattle’s transport success?

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What do Amazon, Starbucks and the Boeing 747 all have in common? They were all founded in what is now the 15th largest Metropolitan area in United States; Seattle. Despite its location only 59 miles from one of world’s most dangerous Volcano’s, Mount Rainier, Seattle’s population has continued to grow and in 2016, saw population growth of 3.1%, making it the fastest growing major city in the US.

Due to Seattle’s unique Geography, nestled between the Puget Sound to the West, and Lake Washington and the Cascades to the East, the main flow of transport North to South is guided through what is a relatively narrow stretch of land. This invariably has led to high levels of congestion and an inability for Seattle to greatly expand its highway networks. No wonder Seattle boasts one of the best and well used public transport (or transit as the American’s like to say) networks in the US.

Bus boon

Buses play an incredibly important role in Seattle. Roughly 1,800 buses are operated by the King County Metro authority and Sound Transit agency, providing between them a pretty comprehensive network of buses.

The buses themselves are generally high quality vehicles, providing capacious cabins, accurate next stop announcements, and – contrasting with the lighter weight buses that many UK operators use – boast smooth and comfy rides. Many buses are hybrid and Seattle also has something that can no longer be seen beyond the walls of transport museums in the UK – trolleybuses. Whilst the overhead wire for trolleybuses can frustratingly ruin a tourist’s picture, the environmental benefits they deliver for such large urban centres is quite evident. Perhaps it was just the dominant flow of sea air from the Pacific Ocean, but Seattle felt and smelt fresher than many European cities I have visited, particularly London.

Whilst the bus in Seattle provided a welcome improvement over UK examples in terms of on-board passenger experience, in other areas it’s depressingly familiar. The bus drivers, whilst not unfriendly, were not particularly helpful. Fares were quite expensive at $2.75 for a ride, although this did include the ability to hop to another bus within four hours of purchasing a ticket. Punctuality was also not particularly brilliant, with buses missing from the schedule and drivers taking liberty with their break times.

Perhaps this was just an unlucky experience because Seattle has historically taken bus priority very seriously indeed. In 1990, the 1.3 mile long Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel opened. Looking a little like the Washington DC Metro system, this tunnel was not built for rail but for trolleybuses. Such a commitment to big bus infrastructure is rare and was welcome to see, providing light rail like service quality for bus passengers. Fast-forward to 2009, and buses started to share the tunnel with the newly opened Link light rail system – an interesting sight, although catching a bus and Link train together is something of a challenge.

In 2012, the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel carried an impressive 52,000 passengers per day, of which 10,000 were on the light rail system. Rather disappointingly, this interesting transport set up will not last much longer. Buses will soon be relegated to street level in order to accommodate planned expansions for the light rail system through the tunnel system.

Linking rail and residential

Tram and Bus v2

With significant population increases to contend with, it is little wonder that Seattle’s transit authorities have turned their attention to developing the comprehensive Link light rail network. The first 13.9 mile long phase opened in 2009 between SeaTac Airport and the City Centre.

The route operates via a number of major new suburban developments. Link rolling stock and operations are an interesting combination between a tram and a train. In the city centre it operates very much like a tram but once it reaches suburban areas, the driver unleashes the power delivered by the 1500V overhead wires, accelerating passengers to 55mph.

The concept behind the Link network is a classic example of transit oriented development. The first route has been designed to take in areas of new residential development, particularly around Othello and Columbia city stations. Within half a mile of Othello station is a diverse population of just under 8,000, with a wide range of social and market rate developments nestled alongside each other. By building the Link network where major urban development has occurred, Seattle’s city planners have helped to facilitate sustainable population growth by placing public transport at the heart of new developments.

Sky trains

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For whatever reason, the monorail as a mode of transport has always suffered a bit of an image problem, forever being associated with a theme park attraction (see Walt Disney World), rather than a serious public transit network. The Seattle monorail is certainly an attraction, but it does also provide a key public transit link, connecting passengers from the Westlake transportation hub to the Space Needle. Whether it’s Disney World, Kuala Lumpur or Seattle, I’m always astounded when I ride on a monorail as to why it’s never caught on in a big way. It is such a fabulous way to travel, and when boarding this monorail at the grand age of 29, I felt the same giddy excitement when traveling across the Seven Seas Lagoon 20 years earlier.

Opened in 1962 to coincide with the opening of the Space Needle, the original vehicles are astoundingly still in operation today. At $2.50, it is not exactly a cheap ride, but it is a thoroughly enjoyable and memorable one. Admiring the fantastic views that one can enjoy from a monorail, as well as noting the limited footprint at ground level for monorail infrastructure, I keep asking myself why there aren’t more monorails in the world?

As a visitor, Seattle is a really easy place to get around. As a transport planner, I appreciate its historical commitment to the bus and trolleybus, although I have concerns about its future, playing second fiddle to the new Link light rail network. Link is clearly the vision Seattle’s transit planners have for the future of the city’s mobility, and its deployment is a good example of transit orientated development working. During 2017, nearly 50% of commuters to downtown Seattle arrived via mass transit, aided by the comprehensive bus network, well located Link light rail network and extortionate car parking charges. Seattle then is a great example of a successful transport network that also boasts a huge array of interesting modes; buses, trolleybuses, streetcars, light rail, heavy rail, and of course, the monorail. Perhaps there’s some lessons that transport and city planners in the UK can learn from Seattle’s experience.

Stephen Bellamy is Business Development Officer – Policy at Nexus, and is on secondment as a Policy Advisor at Urban Transport Group