Public transport is the great unifier, bringing us together by making travel cheap and easy. However, it can also expose a great divide between the haves and the have-nots as so well demonstrated by the imminent opening of Crossrail, London’s new £15 billion east–west railway. There’s no doubt it will be a fantastic boon for Londoners and, indeed, the capital’s businesses as it will offer air-conditioned rapid travel between the two sides of London as well as linking Canary Wharf with Heathrow.
One of the beneficiaries of Crossrail will be Thamesmead, that lost section of south east London on a bend in the Thames that houses one of its most deprived estates. It is precisely the sort of estate that desperately needs better transport links as a way of boosting access to jobs and to make it a more desirable place to live. There are countless similar places in the rest of the UK, but particularly in the north, which has been badly neglected in relation to transport spending.
The raw figures are extraordinary. In the past year, partly because of Crossrail, London benefitted from nearly £2,000 per head compared with around £200 spent per head in the three main northern regions. No wonder there is a feeling that the metropolitan elite are benefitting from the tax take. On the ground this translates to pacers, 30-yearold trains, which are little more than buses on very basic rail bogeys, providing many of the key services between northern towns. Crossrail it ain’t. So we need a northern powerhouse, a genuine one. The solution is simple for the railways. Again, the lesson comes from the south. In its heyday, which sadly was interrupted by the crazy privatisation initiated in 1992 by the Major government, British Rail created three business units: Intercity, Regional Railways and Network SouthEast. It was incredibly successful as it gave a commercial edge to the social aspects of the railway.
This is the model that is needed for the north. Any future government needs to commit to providing fast – not high speed which is prohibitively expensive, so this is not HS3 – electric trains between all the major towns and cities of the north on modernised tracks. This would require considerable work in improving sections of existing track where there are permanent speed restrictions and the provision of a complete set of new trains. It may even require some smaller stops being left out in order to speed up the regional services, but this is always a difficult balancing act for railways. The key would be branding with something like ‘Rail for the North’ to highlight the fact that all these major conurbations have a common cause. Crucially, by running at speeds of up to 100mph, the trains would be able to deliver journey times that were quicker than the car. The modern, clean, fast and well-used service would give the whole region an identity. It would send a message that all these places are ready for the 21st century.
Think of all those equivalents of Thamesmead that would suddenly be within reach of far more places with job opportunities. Think how many locations near to stations would become desirable because of accessibility. Think too, of all the other benefits which modern railways have been proved to offer, ranging from environmental benefits to leisure opportunities. Compass with OSF & FES 72 Paying for it would be simple. The money is already earmarked… but for HS2. That is a scheme which has none of the advantages of ‘Rail for the North’. It links various cities with London and, as several academics have pointed out, such lines generally benefit the more affluent of the two areas which are connected. It will, again, therefore be a project for the metropolitan elite, which will do little for the areas of the north it serves and nothing at all for the rest.
In fact, quite the opposite. Far from encouraging development outside London, the high-speed trains will ensure that businesses will no longer consider having regional offices and instead focus on London since Manchester and Leeds will all be reachable in just over an hour. And the cost is so high that money will be sucked out of the transport system for decades in order to pay for it. Rail for the North would be far cheaper, probably in the order of between £10 billion and £15 billion and deliverable far more quickly.
One other ingredient should be part of any progressive government’s offer: integrated transport, once one of New Labour’s buzzwords, but thanks to its emphasis on ‘market forces’ never realised. The rail services need to be complemented by efficient bus services that connect with the railways and provide fast services to towns and suburbs on the periphery. Crucially, this will require re-regulating the bus services to enable local authorities to determine priorities. The fact that buses outside London were deregulated in the 1980s causing swathes of services to be cut was yet another all too obvious example of the metropolitan elite ensuring that their needs were met, effectively by the state, while outside free market forces could run rampant. Re-regulating the buses and creating systems whereby buses complement the rail network, rather than competing with it as happens in Tyneside with the metro, would ensure the public had much better access to the transport network. As I said at the beginning of this essay, transport could be a great unifier, but its potential as such has not been exploited.