We mustn't make transport investment into a London v The North battle
20 September 2017 | Author: Prof. David Begg, Chief Executive, Transport Times

The recent criticism of the Government for not giving sufficient priority to the North of England on transport investment does not stand up to scrutiny either historically or on a regional basis.

It is has been a common occurrence for envious eyes to be cast at the scale of transport investment in London. The capital will always do well on a regional comparison as the rapidly growing level of demand for transport ensures that any new rail or underground capacity fills up within a few years. This invariably results in a compelling business case.

In 2008, when I was chairing the Northern Ways Transport group, I was asked by the then Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly how her announcement that the Government would be backing Crossrail would be perceived in the North. I said "badly". She asked what she could do to quell discontent. I told her the Manchester Hub, now the Northern Hub, was the top priority. It has a benefit cost ratio of 4 to 1, double that of Crossrail and would dramatically improve rail connectivity across the North. The £560 million project is under construction with the Ordsall Curve nearing completion.

This is an example of the North having a compelling business case but a failure in the past to act collectively and prioritise on a pan Northern basis meant that the case fell on death ears at Whitehall. It was always viewed as a parochial Manchester project rather than a project critical to rail to rail connectivity across the North. Thankfully this should not happen again with the creation of Transport for the North (TfN). The real test for TfN going forward will be to ensure robust business cases determine investment priorities and that this outweighs local pressure to spread the investment across the North.

Labour governments since 1997 failed to invest sufficiently in transport in the North of England. Even HS2, which was backed by Andrew Adonis when he was transport Secretary, was not supported by the then Chancellor Alistair Darling and it's by no means certain it would have proceeded under a Labour Government during a period of austerity. Ed Balls had made it clear that he would rather spend the money on housing.

While HS2 starts from London it's never been a project which has been a top priority for successive London Mayor's or TfL. They would always put more emphasis on London only projects such as Crossrail 2. It is in the North of England and the Midlands that the political pressure for HS2 has been applied because of the economic benefits it will bring.

I'm all for levelling criticism of government's when they deserve it but since 2010 I have been surprised and impressed by the scale of investment in the rail network at a time when many sectors have felt the full brunt of austerity measures. Rail is the only mode of transport where we are predicting the growth in demand and attempting to cater for it with investment in capacity. In the North of England over £13 billion of transport investment is committed in this parliament alone.

It's encouraging that organisations who lobby for transport now refuse to be critical of investment in one part of the country as they realise that this is not a zero sum game and that the case for more transport investment across the country must be made. London First, TfL, TfN and the Urban Transport Group all take this mature responsible approach.

The recent announcements by DfT on rail electrification and upgrades have been met with a barrage of criticism. It seems to me that the Secretary of State for Transport Chris Grayling is only trying to ensure that the taxpayer and fare payer are getting value for money.

As the technology changes in favour of bi-modal trains so does the business case for electrification. Likewise who could really justify an investment of £1 billion for a one minute time saving for a rail upgrade on the Midland Mainline to Sheffield? If this is snubbing the North then I would be guilty too. We should never lose sight of the objective to put as compelling a case for transport investment to the Treasury as possible. We don't achieve this with poor value for money schemes or when wages in the rail sector are too high compared with productivity. This is why it is imperative that rail modernisation proceeds in terms of embracing new technology and working practices. This is crucial if the rail success story is to continue.

Professor David Begg chaired the Commission for Integrated Transport under Tony Blair's Government and chaired the Northern Way Transport group from 2005 to 2010.

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