An interview with Transport for the North Chief Executive David Brown

Arriving for my interview with David Brown in the offices of Transport for Greater Manchester, it seems apt that he has just travelled by rail from Liverpool and I have come from Leeds, as these cities are among those targeted to benefit from the improved transport links as advocated by the One North prospectus. Our respective journey times would be substantially reduced under its proposed strategy, with rail travel from Leeds to Manchester taking around 30 minutes and the journey time from Liverpool to Manchester halved to 20 minutes, as well as the added dimension of a potential direct link from Liverpool to Manchester Airport.

However, as the newly-appointed chief executive of Transport for the North, who took up his post this week, explains to me, the plan is as much about generating badly needed additional capacity within the transport infrastructure as shaving minutes off journey times. This is one of the reasons he favours the name "TransNorth Rail" for the proposed rail improvement programme, which is "not as sexy" as the emerging tag of High Speed 3, but much more apt to its aims.

He says: "It's not actually high speed, because for a journey of 30 to 40 miles you can't realistically travel at 200 miles an hour." Nevertheless, he recognises that current journey times from Leeds to Liverpool of two hours by rail and potentially more by road are not tenable for today's business commuters.

Mr Brown explains that the primary aim behind March's Northern Powerhouse report is to create a plan for strategic transport investment to underpin the Northern Powerhouse concept. This, in turn, reflects a now widely held belief that, economically, cities of a similar size – both in the UK and elsewhere in Europe – are outperforming those in the north of England and that this is at least partly due to a disparity in the quality of strategic transport links.

Following the report's publication, Transport for the North has undoubtedly become high profile. The budget statement
by the chancellor of the exchequer in July further underlined the Government's commitment to its progress, announcing the intention to establish TfN as a statutory body and confirming its three-year funding. The appointment of transport guru Lord Adonis to head the independent infrastructure commission that will assist in prioritising strategic projects became the last piece in the jigsaw.

Mr Brown explains: "Transport for the North will build on existing commitments – HS2 being just one example – and extend their benefits to the cities across the north of England, including Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Hull and Sheffield. "The plan is to meet the demand that we know is already there, but also to get ahead of the curve
and put in place a system that will allow the economy to grow," he says.

He adds that the strategy will work at three levels, the first being nationally significant, macro projects. These include east-west rail improvements as well as road feasibility studies being undertaken by Highways England to assess trans-Pennine road improvements, such as a possible tunnel, and improvements to the high level Scotch Corner to Penrith A66 route. These will be complemented by regional projects, such as additional rail capacity and electrification, and improvements to the M60 north-west quadrant. The third level encompasses plans for improved local connectivity, including the local bus and rail network.

Mr Brown says: "It's not just about going fast from Liverpool to Leeds, but how easily you can get on to that spine and off it. There is no point in getting quickly from Liverpool to Leeds and then sitting on a Pacer going at a snail's pace to Huddersfield."

Although rail links are an obvious priority, improvements to all types of freight and passenger connections, including roads, ports and airports are all within the remit of TfN.

Integrated bus and rail services, smart ticketing and consistent fares for passengers are clearly aspirations for a successful northern transport network. But how realistic is it to reflect the London model in disparate northern cities? Mr Brown is pragmatic: "People want a similar model to Oyster, but Transport for London has spent years getting to that point. But we want to learn from that experience and from experience elsewhere in Europe." In relation to coordinating bus services, particularly in a deregulated bus market with multiple operators, he says: "At the moment, TfN will focus on strategic infrastructure, but as part of local connectivity we would expect city regions to have comprehensive plans on how they are going to provide bus services." He adds that "buses are absolutely fundamental to local connectivity"

In respect of ticketing, he says: "All the big city regions are developing smartcard ticketing systems." TfN has no desire, he says, to intervene where things work well as part of a local plan. "Where TfN adds value is to make it easier to travel between those big employment centres."

Improving rail services is a logical first step. Although the proposal to combine the Transpennine and Northern Rail franchises, as put forward by Rail North, was ultimately rejected by the DfT, the department has clearly taken heed of the body's recommendation to scrap the outmoded Pacer diesel multiple units currently used on the Northern franchise. These are to be replaced by at least 120 new diesel carriages. Mr Brown says: "Operators of the new franchises will be in place by April and part of that specification is to provide new, better trains."

He concedes that while the failure to merge Transpennine and Northern may be seen as a missed opportunity, there is logic in the decision, with the Northern franchise alone being reputedly larger than the total railway network of Denmark. In any event, TfN will aim to improve integration between the two franchises, with the main aim being seamless passenger service and timetabling. Mr Brown sees both sides of the equation: as a regular user of trains, with rail being his preferred mode of transport, he recognises that passengers are not concerned with who operates the trains, but how successfully and smoothly they are getting from A to B.

Mr Brown is confident that there
is a lot that can be achieved in the next five to ten years: "If you look at the whole system from Liverpool to Leeds and Hull, some parts in engineering terms are easier and more affordable than others."

He says: "If you are travelling from Bolton to Manchester every day and can't get on the train then you want something to happen now, rather than the promise of a future vision."

Nevertheless vision is clearly a quality that David Brown is bringing to his new role, as well as a clear grasp of what is realistic and achievable. Having worked in Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool, he knows both the people and the local transport issues in the cities he is planning to represent. Transport for the North, he says, will be "the next evolution for me and the North."

Reference: Transport Times, November 2015 Issue

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