Five things I learned for urban transport at Conservative party conference

Grayling’s plan for rail

Chris Grayling was expansive in setting out his thoughts on the future for rail at a rail industry fringe…

– He previously thought evolution not revolution was right approach for rail but recent events have shown that this isn’t the case. The system is broken and needs fixing.

– However the rail review will not be about all aspects of the rail industry it will be a ‘validation exercise’ around different options for greater unification of tracks and trains plus a ‘guiding mind’ for the rail industry as a whole. He would be ‘very surprised’ if this isn’t the approach the review takes. ‘Something like the SRA is needed’ and ‘the DfT should do less than it does now after the review’. He referenced Japan which has vertically integrated regional train companies as one of the models for greater unification of track and trains.

– In the meantime he trusts Andrew Haines to make very sure that Network Rial gets its act together on timetable planning so there will be no repeat of the recent timetabling fiascos

– The rail review will also look at where it is appropriate to extend devo and where it is not. He said extending the Tyne and Wear Metro and Merseytravel taking the Merseyrail infrastructure were good examples of where it is appropriate and gave London taking over south east rail services as his prime example of where it is not appropriate. All of this boils down to that he is pro-devolution where it is about services within the area covered by the devolved authority and anti-devolution where a city region starts to take too many responsibilities for services in the surrounding shires

– The Rail Review will be formally launched following a statement in parliament when parliament returns

Vote leave, vote against HS2?

Grayling said at the same industry fringe meeting that no cabinet minister has said to him that HS2 should be abandoned or scaled back. However it’s clear that there are a number of prominent ‘Leave’ figures, in and out of the cabinet, who have said it publicly or are known to be floating it privately. Grayling’s line was that (as far as any major project of this scale can be completely on target in terms of budget and timings) that HS2 is on course, fully committed and it’s steady as it goes. However it’s clear that completing all of HS2, or not, is back in play as a wider political football. Also there’s probably a stronger political consensus now around Northern Powerhouse Rail than there is around building all of HS2. Some bigger, bolder HS2 advocacy will be required if the case is to be re-made, and re-won.

The devo dimension to Brexit makes a modest come back

One dimension to some Brexiteer arguments was that powers devolved from Brussels should go down to the regions not all go back to Whitehall. This dimension to the argument did make a modest come back in some quarters at the conference (including at some Centre for Cities / Core cities events from CLG Secretary James Brokenshire and George Freeman MP).

It may find fuller voice in a new framework for devolution which Brokenshire briefly trailed as coming out in the autumn at the Centre for Cities reception

Enough to fill the Albert Hall

Although much of what Grayling focussed on at conference was big infrastructure issues he did suggest there could be some better news coming on local roads maintenance (perhaps this reflects that poor local road maintenance is motorists’ number one concern according to recent RAC research)

Love for the Bus

Buses came up much more on our conference stand than in previous years at Conservative party conference and is seen much more through the prism of the key role they can play to improve transport provision more widely rather than the totemic deregulation v regulation argument that used to be more to the fore

Jonathan Bray

 

 

Time is right for fresh thinking on future of urban rail

The recent meltdowns on Northern and Thameslink not only left many passengers besides themselves with frustration about not being able to get to work on time – or at all – it also led to a firestorm of criticism and condemnation from politicians and media alike. With the immediate shock of that first Monday morning of the meltdown passed there’s a now a bigger debate about whether the way that rail services are provided for cities needs some far reaching reform. Before coming to that the first thing to say (and as we set out in our Rail Cities UK report that we launched today) is that the fundamentals for urban rail remain very strong. Here’s why. All cities want to become denser, more dynamic places which attract the best people to the growth sectors of the economy (including the ‘flat white economy’ of media, communications and information). In order to achieve this, as well as to improve air quality, cities are also reducing space for motorised traffic in favour of space for people. It’s very difficult to see how this can be achieved without expanding rail networks and their capacity. What’s more if housing need is to be met without creating more sprawl and traffic congestion then again its rail that will be key because it opens up former rail-connected brownfield industrial sites, it extends commuting range plus housing can be built above or around new or existing rail stations and interchanges.

In some ways there’s nothing new here. From Metro-land to Docklands successful cities have always grown with their rail networks. And to be fair there is significant investment going into urban rail at present – for example Northern will get a lot better (the pacers are doomed) and Merseyside and Tyne and Wear are getting a whole new fleet of trains for their urban rail networks. However much (but not all) of this investment is incremental or replacing rolling stock on its last legs – it stops short of a wider vision for the rail cities that we need. What would that look like in practice? There comes a point when the biggest cities need more cross city routes because running trains in and out of edge of centre termini can’t cope with the numbers. Hence the push for Crossrail Two in London but also the need for more cross city capacity in cities like Birmingham (on the Snow Hill route) as well as in Manchester (on the Oxford Road to Manchester Piccadilly corridor as well as a potential new underground route). Tram-train technology can also help – allowing the lucky commuter that benefits to get on board at their local station and get off right outside their city centre office on main street in the city centre rather than piling out at a Victorian railway terminal on the edge of that city centre. Tram-trains aren’t the only tech fix available. Battery packs can extend the range of existing electric trains deeper into the ‘look ma no wires’ hinterlands as well as allow trams to glide through city centres without the expensive clutter of overhead wires.

More mundane but equally useful work to increase capacity through signalling, station, track and junction work offers the opportunity to move to turn up and go networks with greater capacity and more reliability. Networks that start to emulate the best of what comparable German rail cities already enjoy. Interlocking networks of long distance, regional express, regional, s-bahn, u-bahn, trams and buses – under common ticketing.

But in talking about Germany and common ticketing I am now getting back to where I started around the debate on whether some fundamental change is needed on how urban rail networks are provided. Obviously there is a bigger national discussion going on about whether the current structure is just too layered with too many costly interfaces and too fractured a chain of command. And in addition whether the railway should be publicly or privately owned and operated. But it’s been heartening to see the growing recognition that regardless of how these debates are resolved that more devolution for urban and regional services should be part of any solution. Not only because fully devolved services have been out-performing comparators operationally and passenger satisfaction but because local control rather than remote control from Whitehall will mean that the dots can be joined between rail and housing, between rail and the wider re-fashioning of city centres and between rail and local communities (for example through repurposing stations as wider hubs for local community use, enterprises and housing). It will also allow (as in German rail cities) for rail and the rest of local urban public transport networks to be part of one system rather than be just on nodding terms as is all too often the case at present.

The crisis on Northern and Thameslink has been a miserable experience for rail users, affected cities and the rail industry. If any good has come out of it, it is that it shows how important rail is to cities and opens up a space for some bigger thinking about what kind of rail cities we will need for the future – and how best we can make that happen.