Ten years of the pteg Support Unit: Part two

In the second of a series of three blog posts, pteg Support Unit Director Jonathan Bray continues his look back over ten years of the pteg Support Unit.

Ten years of the pteg Support Unit: The unstoppable force of devolution

Merseyrail train at station

Devolution has seen Merseyrail Electrics transform into one of the best performing rail networks in the country

Some of the votes on devolution to Wales, Scotland and London were tight. They wouldn’t be if they were re-run now. And devolution has been good for transport. London is the most striking example with just about every aspect of transport in the capital either transformed for the better, or in the process of being transformed. Rail investment has also rocketed in Scotland. Some of the best performing rail routes are also those that have been devolved – London Overground and Merseyrail Electrics in particular.

The trouble is that for England outside London what tier of governance you devolve to is less clear cut. Regions, city regions, Counties, Districts – what you do for one area has implications for others. This, coupled with the Metropolitan policy elite’s disdain for inquiring too deeply (see Part one) has led to both this and the previous government layering on various initiatives which don’t always relate to each other and lack sufficient decisiveness. Whitehall too is reluctant to fully let go – because now that Scotland, Wales and London are gone – there’s only the rest of England left to play with. So progress is slow, messy and fitful but it’s happening – and it is a one way process. Ultimately though, the logic of having local public transport services controlled locally will prevail and our major cities will have transport systems and planning arrangements that will look and feel more like those in London and in cities across Europe. We will get there in the end.

The rise and rise of rail

Design for a high speed train by Priestmangoode

Rail is now seen as a symbol of the future – rather than of the past (Picture: Priestmangoode)

Fifty years ago Beeching slashed and burned as much of the rail network as he could get away with. And in the decades that followed the rail network was constantly having to fend off a Whitehall establishment that saw rail as a costly problem bequeathed to them by an earlier era that sooner or later they would deal with decisively and terminally. But in the last ten years or so there’s been an extraordinary turn around. Not least because there’s been a boom in rail traffic. Particularly on our city region networks – where growth has outstripped that of London and the South East as people commute further and in greater numbers to access the jobs and opportunities in revitalised core city centres. Rail now looks more like the future and less like the past. HS2 symbolises all of that. After decades as being seen as a costly problem to be managed down to size, rail is seen as part of the solution not the problem. Rail is something that politicians of all kinds want to be associated with. There’s also a sense recently that some of rail’s stardust has settled on the other modes. The recently flurry of investment and expansion of tram schemes – with, most notably, Manchester Metrolink becoming a full on network. And even the bus has lost some of its ‘loser cruiser’ stigma with the Metropolitan policy elite in the last year or so. The bus is now seen as a respectable policy option – if not yet a cool one! The protection of BSOG in the Spending Review being one sign of that.

The battle for the bus

The bus is local public transport for most people outside London. Yet because buses in London are sorted and the bus lacks social cache, bus services outside London had largely been left to decline. Part of a gentlemen’s agreement between Whitehall and the large operators that the bus operators would pretend to compete with each other while Whitehall would pretend to care about falling patronage and rising fares. And whilst the media was hypnotised by every twist and turn of the politics and profits of rail privatisation they let the massive profits being generated off the back of the poorest people in Britain by deregulated bus services outside London go unreported and unexplored. Even though it’s been these profits that have actually been fuelling the wider global ambitions of the big groups. Meanwhile local government in general had slipped into cosy ‘decline management ‘mode on bus. How sloppy were things before we got stuck in? Not long before we started the DfT seconded a senior official to work for CPT on policy, media and public affairs (a fairly easy job lobbying yourself!); maintenance standards were so shoddy wheels were coming off First Group buses in service; and the Traffic Commissioners were regularly dealing with truly appalling early, late and non-running – because even the largest operators knew they could get away with it.

Speakers from the pteg Urban Bus event

New alliances are being forged in support of bus, as our recent ‘Case for the Urban Bus’ event showed. (L-R): Konstanze Scharring, Director of Policy, SMMT; Stephen Joseph, Chief Executive, Campaign for Better Transport; David Brown, Chair, pteg; Pedro Abrantes, Economist, pteg; Claire Haigh, Chief Executive, Greener Journeys; Dr Janet Atherton, President, Association of Directors of Public Health; and Tony Travers, Director, LSE. Picture by Andrew Wiard andrew@reportphotos.com

We changed all that. We put some sharp dividing lines into the bus debate. We dragged bus policy out of the shadows and into the public arena. We had to fight unbelievably hard against Ministers who too often sided with their hostile officials to get some workable legislation for local transport authorities to improve bus services and we worked together as a network to put that legislation into practice.

We were vilified  for doing this not only by the operators (fair enough) but also by their legions of spear carriers – including the world’s most craven trade press and the extensive selection of organisations and individuals who in one way or another are on the bus companies payroll and whose main job it is to enforce a ‘partnership’ (deregulation) consensus at all costs.

We kept going regardless and by doing so the bus is in a far better place than it was ten years ago. At the very least the bus operators know that they have to be seen to push to the very limits what can be achieved in a deregulated environment – which is increasingly guided by legal agreements which came out of the 2008 Local Transport Act. Meanwhile our tenth anniversary saw the first move by a Local Transport Authority (Nexus) to trigger the statutory process for the franchising of bus services (a ‘Quality Contract’) which if it goes ahead will allow bus services to be properly planned and managed and make Tyne and Wear the first conurbation outside London to enjoy the benefits of simple, smart and integrated zonal ticketing across the modes.

Jonathan Bray

Read Part three in the series ‘Ten years of the pteg Support Unit’ which looks at the way we work and the way cities will work in the future. >

< Read Part one in the series ‘Ten years of the pteg Support Unit’ featuring top ten highlights of the last ten years plus the influence of London.

When the buses were (nearly) free: Revisiting South Yorkshire’s ‘grand design’ for transport

Front cover of 'South Yorkshire's Transport 1974-1995'

Front cover of D Scott Hellewell’s account of South Yorkshire’s Transport, picture courtesy of Transport Store

It may not be available on Kindle anytime soon, but ‘South Yorkshire’s Transport 1974-1995’ by D Scott Hellewell is full of fascinating material about the story of the radical years of South Yorkshire’s ‘Grand Design’ for Transport in the Seventies and Eighties (roughly the period from the creation of the PTE and South Yorks County Council in 1974 to bus deregulation in 1986). This is an era still remembered for its cheap bus fares policy but there was a lot more to it than that. Here’s five things I took away from the book. Cheap fares being the best place to start…

1. Too cheap to charge?

The policy on fares in South Yorkshire was…not to put them up. For eight years the fares didn’t go up and with inflation higher than it is today the fares became cheaper and cheaper. Eventually a point would have come when it would cost more to collect the fares than to charge them. At that point bus travel would have become free. The policy was very popular (more than a million people signed a petition to keep the policy in place). It was also effective in keeping bus patronage high and road congestion low (traffic congestion in Sheffield was lower than in any comparable city). It was not popular however in Whitehall and, interestingly, not just with Mrs Thatcher. The preceding Callaghan government also did its best to try to get the PTE to see the error of its ways although it was Thatcher that delivered the coup de gras with the Transport Act of 1984 which led to fares going up by as much as 300% in one day. Bus patronage decline and traffic congestion was the inevitable consequence.

2. Forward thinking days

However, it wasn’t just about cheap fares in South Yorkshire – far from it. The cheap fares policies was accompanied a staggering amount of forward thinking about what a modern public transport network should be doing for the area it serves. This included the introduction of minibus services to serve outlying areas (common now – but not then) and a Bendibus city centre shuttle. Bendibuses being so novel at the time it was actually technically illegal in the UK to run them, (until, that is, South Yorkshire got national Government to change the rules to allow their operation). The PTE was also determined to get cleaner, modern buses that could cope with Sheffield’s formidable hills, whilst spewing out fewer noxious fumes (air quality was and is a problem in Sheffield) and providing a good working environment for drivers. In effect the PTE was working towards a ‘Bus (or buses) for South Yorkshire’. In some ways this is similar to the way London in the past (the Routemaster and its antecedents) has gone. On green clean technologies South Yorks was also an early pioneer of battery buses and it ran a trial of a modern trolleybus (with a test track at Doncaster racecourse). This direct interest in pushing the boundaries of bus technologies was also linked to a strand of thinking around how a dynamic public sector commissioning body could help drive wider UK manufacturing and technological development and capacity (creating skilled and worthwhile jobs in the process). The PTE was also ahead of its time in promoting access to the bus network for older and disabled people. Both through concessionary fares and some early examples of buses that could carry wheelchair users. So when some people say the public sector can’t innovate on public transport…they are talking drivel!

3. The Sheffield Underground that never was…

One of the sidestories of the book is how the South Yorkshire rail network teetered on the edge of oblivion. The rail network was never a major player for rail commuters and when the PTE was set up in 1974 the patronage of entire local rail network could have been carried on 18 buses (allegedly)! It would have been if some of the busmen had their way but the railways fought back – including a BR proposition for an underground loop linking Sheffield Midland with an underground station serving the city centre. The Sheffield underground never happened (Supertram did instead). However eventually the railways were integrated into the wider progressive strategy for public transport in the area with new stations and services even if that involved a few interesting wheezes to get there. For example running a BR Summer Saturday seaside special to Blackpool on a route that otherwise the PTE would have had to bear all the costs of…

4. Nothing’s perfect…

The book is unsparing on the tensions and difficulties that always emerge around the boundaries between one organisation and another. In this case between Districts and the Met County Council, the PTE and the Districts, the Unions and the PTE, and so on and so forth. Wherever you draw the lines between areas and organisations it will never be perfect and there is always the potential for tensions, but as the author makes clear, in South Yorkshire what was collectively achieved was clearly impressive.

5. Bus policy…not so boring after all

These days in the professional / Whitehall debate, by and large, it’s spending on capital projects which is seen as the grown up thing to do, whereas current spending, (including on holding bus fares down) is rather looked down upon. But one of things that the South Yorkshire story shows for astute politicians, who want to make an impact quickly, is that current spending on bus can make the weather for the wider debate about transport – getting ridership up, generating momentum and creating an environment where further spending on transport (including capital) is seen as the right thing to do. It can also make an impact quickly and across a wide area whereas new infrastructure can take years and is site specific. Interesting too how often bus policy has actually becoming something much more emblematic and defining for politicians over the years – Ken’s fares policies and Boris’s Routemaster being one example. So, despite the obsession of most politicians and commentators with trains – who would have thought it – bus policy isn’t so boring after all!

Jonathan Bray

pteg visits…Midland Metro

Over the coming year, members of the pteg Support Unit team will be getting out and about to visit and learn from key transport projects and organisations. First up, Matt Brunt, Assistant Director visits Midland Metro in Birmingham.

Passengers at Wolverhampton Midland Metro tram stop

The current network runs between Wolverhampton and Snow Hill on the edge of Birmingham City Centre

Before today’s trip, I had travelled on Midland Metro once, but for a short trip and in the middle of winter. This time I was accompanied on my journey by the Programme Director, Paul Griffiths, and Mark Ashmore, Metro Health and Safety Manager from Centro.

The current line, running from Snow Hill station on the edge of Birmingham city centre through to Wolverhampton, is unobstrusive and echoes the branch-line feel that the route presumably took over when it first opened in 1999.

Well used and well run, it has recovered from some early teething problems – not least of which the somewhat novel approach to vehicle assembly used by the suppliers of the first fleet, where trams were built in a series of separate Italian factories, resulting in sixteen slightly differently configured vehicles.

Midland Metro tram

The next phase of the system's development will see trams enter the heart of Birmingham city centre

At present, the Midland Metro is perhaps one of the lesser known tram systems in the UK. However, this will change with the implementation of the second phase of its development. A £128m scheme will see the extension of the tramline onto the streets of central Birmingham, penetrating into the heart of the city, as well as a new fleet of trams and an extended depot facility. Final funding approval has now been given and plans are moving towards implementation over the next few years, with the city centre extension and full new tram fleet due in service from 2015.

New Street Station redevelopment - Artist's impression

Trams will serve a transformed New Street Station

The plans for the city centre route are impressive. Dovetailing with the New Street Gateway project (which sees New Street Station undergoing a £600 million transformation) the trams will bring a very different feel to the city centre. The route from the new station entrance will run along Corporation Street (one of the main shopping streets in the city) and then join up with the line at Snow Hill, making a huge impact on the area and bringing the ‘sparks effect’ to the centre of Birmingham. The Snow Hill tram stop itself is being moved to bring the trams ‘up’ to street level and run parallel to the nearby high quality office development.

Looking forward, thoughts are already turning to how the system can link to the proposed High Speed 2 station at Curzon St, and be extended in the other direction towards the civic quarter, conference venues and development at Brindley Place. A flythrough of the route can be seen here: 

It is clear that the expanded Midland Metro will dramatically shift the visibility of the system and the profile it has. Moving ‘on-street’ into the city centre is certainly not without its challenges, but hopefully these developments will see Midland Metro come into its own.

Matt Brunt