Investing to connect the Northern Powerhouse

Hugh Chaplain | 07 Mar 2016 | Comments

Transport connectivity and economic growth are both central to Transport for the North (TfN) and the likely approach to infrastructure that the newly devolved cities and city regions will take. Over the next decade leaders from across the Northern Powerhouse will look to make long overdue investment into the transport network across many parts of the region happen. All parties involved will have to work out collectively the key priorities for areas of transport investment, arguably a process is well underway already.

However, it’s with my experience of over 30 years in the rail sector and most of it based in the north of England, that I believe we need to take stock and review where there has been significant levels of underinvestment across the region before rushing off and setting out multiple new investment priorities. Carrying out this review will enable TfN and city leaders to truly create a holistic plan and approach to priorities for transport. At the core, this discussion needs to ensure we question why investment hasn’t happened in certain places previously. Was it because there were other priorities, was it because it would cost too much or was it because the return on investment was poor? Have things changed that now make this investment a viable option or can we look at how the scheme is assessed to ensure that the wider positive outcomes that could be created for a city and local area if the right level of investment is made form part of the decision making.

I believe a recent success story of targeted rail investment was connectivity between Leeds and Manchester. The route had previously lacked funding, so when money did become available the main focus of investment aimed at increasing the frequency of trains, capacity and reduced journey times between both cities. Once upgraded the number of trains was increased to five per hour creating wider positive knock on effects to the cities and surrounding areas. As a direct result, the North TransPennine route experienced a significant increase in demand for use of the service as frequency and capacity increased, impacting on wider employment and job opportunities, social mobility along with personal use of the service benefiting local businesses, entertainment and retail spaces.

So, what type of rail investment is required?

  • Reduce journey times, making it quicker and easier to work and socialise between cities
  • Increased capacity to run more and longer trains, leading to flexibility in movement of people, goods and services and a more reliable network
  • The introduction of technology and data to our networks to enable us to provide a better customer experience and journeys on all forms of transport

Returning to the example of connectivity between Manchester and Leeds, these two cities had previously been exposed to under investment on their network, but through targeted funds being used to plug this gap we’ve seen the multiplier effect come into force across local areas and people. It goes to show that when we take time, review where there has been a lack of funding the past, but the opportunity for growth still remains, we are able to make significant and positive changes to places, businesses and communities. It can also deliver benefits more quickly, while the more significant game-changing investments are developed. One big mistake we do not want to make as we embark on the long term Northern Powerhouse journey is to widen economic gaps, leaving people and places behind.