The transport community needs to recognise the country has big problems to solve and concentrate on where we can really help

HS2 will no longer reach north of Birmingham. The government decided that there were greater priorities

I know it might seem odd for me, of all people to say this, but I’ll be blunt, I think there’s far more pressing priorities – so the decision not to proceed with the second phase of HS2 was the right one. This, from a government which must rank as the most clueless ever when it comes to transport decisions and policies.

When I pontificate about my fears for a future world in which I will be an old duffer and my kids will be developing further into adulthood, I’ll be honest, fears around transport rank very low on the agenda. I feel more unnerved by the prospect of nuclear Armageddon unleashed by Putin, followed by the continued and never-ending conflict in the Middle East. Closer to home, I’ve a whole litany of fears. The first is knife and gun crime and the breakdown in social cohesion and lawlessness per se. Perhaps I’ve been overly consumed by some of the TikToks I stumble across, but I’ve been alarmed at the increase in brawls that now seem fairly routine, and also of casual shoplifting – an ill that if it becomes fashionable will soon lead to the total end of society as we know it. So too, casual drug taking – leafy Surrey where I live is rife with it.

I could list 50 things that worry me more than transport

I’m worried – particularly as I enter my twilight years when ailments become more common – by the dreadful state of the NHS. Has anyone tried to book an appointment at their local GP lately? Where I live, we literally can only phone up between 08:00 and 08:01 Mondays to Fridays and if you miss that minute you have to wait till tomorrow, even if you are keeling over. From the cost of living, including the number of cats that are being abandoned because a sachet of pet food is now over a fiver, through to education where state schools are lawless and university students are ripped off by fees for an experience that involves an over-dependency on online learning – I could list 50 things that worry me more than transport.

We shouldn’t over-exaggerate the importance of transport. When Andy Burnham was castigating the government for the decision on HS2, it felt opportunist. After all, is he heaping similar opprobrium on a routine basis about the state of healthcare in the North or out of control crime? And, if you speak to most people in Greater Manchester, I suspect that their worries will be more pressing than the loss of a faster rail link to supplement the already pretty fast and frequent service between London, Birmingham and Manchester.

Over the past 12 months, in particular, I’ve travelled almost daily across all parts of the UK. Last week alone, in the space of four days, I spent prolonged periods wandering the streets of Sheffield, Harrogate, Halifax, Workington, Blackpool, Northwich and Northampton – a very typical week. What I see more and more, and what I hear when talking to folk, is that their concerns are more localised, particularly so, post-Covid, as the pandemic, combined with the rise of online retailing entertainment, remote working, the gig economy and literally ‘I can’t be bothered to travel far at weekends, pleasures are closer to home’ mentality, has limited mobility aspirations.

I am very much in the minority of someone who desires and chooses to spend a working week travelling across towns and cities to do business. Most folk couldn’t give two hoots about a new long-distance railway that they might use once every few years. Many know they won’t be able to afford to do so in any case – the existing train fares on InterCity routes are almost out of the price range of your average person. HS2 services will, in all probability, come at a bigger premium fare and we’ll have a two-tier railway.

The people I see and talk to on my travels care more about their local bus service being more frequent and on-time

The people I see and talk to on my travels care more about their local bus service being more frequent and on-time, or the cost of bread in Co-Op, or the scourge of casual drug taking in their neighbourhood, or the waiting time for routine medical treatment.

My de-prioritisation of transport is also because (positively so), I don’t actually think the current experience is that bad. I’m reasonably happy with the service I receive currently when travelling, particularly on the InterCity services. I can’t recall the last time I genuinely came home and cursed the service and I’m still in awe of being able to travel in such comfort on Avanti from London to Manchester in only two hours, six minutes. It’s light years away from experiences in dank, cold, dirty Mark 1 or 2 carriages in the 1980s and 1990s. Don’t let the old-timers who used to work for British Rail kid you that it was great back in the day!

Money would be better spent on regenerating town centres because, in my view, that is more crucial to the future prosperity and social cohesion of the UK. Again, on my extensive overnighters, I’ve been staggered by the death of the night-time economy. Apart from a few of the really big cities, almost every major population is now bereft of any life after dark. These are places that literally used to be party centres at weekends and now they are almost entirely desolate. Ghost towns isn’t hyperbole.

Walk around these places and the sight of large, empty, cavernous pubs, nightclubs and restaurants hardly entices folk to want to come out – why leave the warmth and security of home for a soulless, desolate and badly lit town centre (it’s as though councils are deliberately shrouding streets in darkness to turn them away), where the only people hanging around are beggars, which is the norm across many parts of the country. By day, shops are boarded up and where there was once a Debenhams, there are now money-laundering businesses masquerading as sweets and vape stores.

I’d prefer investment in the night-time economy, giving folk a purpose to travel, supported by funding of evening and weekend local bus services to make it easy to come into town and get home again. The £2 fares incentive is brilliant, but it’s poorly publicised and no good if services have all been culled after the shops have shut. So too, it needs to be supported by bus companies actually working with destinations to stimulate demand. In the case of many routes, there are hidden gems to visit, yet many bus operators don’t realise this. At Great Scenic Journeys, we’re working to help them unlock the potential of these routes.


We do, of course, know that better public transport can regenerate communities and regions. London’s Docklands has been transformed completely, firstly by the Docklands Light Railway, then the Jubilee line, Crossrail and, of course, London Overground, which also led to the gentrification of many parts of inner London. In Greater Manchester, the arrival of Metrolink breathed new life into swathes of the city, whilst Midland Metro had an indelible impact on the Black Country. So too, the Thanet towns have been positively impacted by HS1. But for all of these, there remain communities so geographically remote (in extreme corners of Cumbria, Wales, or Scotland, for instance), where investment in local bus services would be far more effective.

The Potteries is a classic example; served by a very good high-speed service to Stoke, the area is awkwardly remote from the communities that are central to a regional economy that is literally on its knees and eternally suffering the highest levels of deprivation, making them the ultimate ghost towns for long periods of the day and night – Hanley, Burslem, Longport, Newcastle Under Lyme.

Then, of course, there are locations where no amount of spending on public transport is able to lift them from the abyss. Here, the problems are far more complex and transcend transport as a medicine. Croydon is a classic example, and I was reminded of this a fortnight ago by the deplorable murder of a 15-year-old schoolgirl on a bus in broad daylight. Croydon is a town I know well as a lifelong Crystal Palace fan and also having in my career run all the stations in the borough. Growing up over the years not far away in Orpington, I was an avid reader of The Croydon Advertiser and even way back in the 1980s and 1990s, it took some steel to read beyond the Sports section into the news pages, where some of the crimes reported were absolutely horrific and like something out of a warzone. The riots of 2011 didn’t shock me at all and this is a town that is literally on a tinder-box, it could happen again and much worse.

Law and order in Croydon has completely collapsed, deprivation is rife and where London Overground may have made Norwood, Crystal Palace and Streatham affluent, it’s had a knock-on effect on Selhurst, Thornton Heath, Addington and West Croydon, which seem perpetually excluded from rejuvenation. Meanwhile, Croydon Council is in ‘special measures’ and bankrupt. The latest blow to the town centre is Sainsbury’s decision to up sticks, with indications that rampant shoplifting is a contributory factor. Yet Croydon is a town with fast, direct, and frequent train services to a range of central London destinations and across London to other parts of the Home Counties, as well as the coast, alongside an impressive tram network that ensures that transport services east to west are on a par with the excellent vertical offering. There are also more buses than shops, it seems in Croydon and many decent interchange facilities.

Another location where public transport has been improved but with little, if any, discernible impact is Blackpool. It enjoys a frequent, well-respected network of trams and buses and direct trains to London have returned as well as good connections to Preston for additional services to London and also to the Midlands, North West and Scotland. However, one walk round Blackpool and you’ll see great tourist attractions against a backdrop of rundown accommodation, homeless people, sparsely populated nightclubs and pubs, as well as the whiff of spliffs, never far away. A few weeks ago, I was approached by one lady, thinking I was a drug dealer! Across the UK, there are plenty of locations which appear to be in gradual decay, across a number of fronts, despite having a decent transport network.

There are some places poorly served, particularly by rail, where one feels that investment would make a difference. As a regular visitor to Scarborough, for instance, the systemic decline of this once great coastal town is apparent and in tandem with the pathetic demise of the train service. Without the salvaging efforts of the very good bus service, the town would be in the abyss. There are other locations, such as Accrington, Burnley, Middlesbrough, and Halifax, that feel as though improved rail services would be impactful.

For me, it’s about being selective in identifying and analysing in detail those locations where investment in transport is going to have the biggest impact on socio-economic prosperity

Politicians love creating headlines that are so binary. If a high-speed rail route isn’t extended as planned to Manchester, then that must, somehow, mean we’re all screwed. For me, it’s about being selective in identifying and analysing in detail those locations where investment in transport is going to have the biggest impact on socio-economic prosperity. There will be some places where the effect will be marginal and there are bigger issues to tackle, but there are also forgotten towns where better public transport could be the catalyst for a much-needed revival.

In announcing that the government would re-allocate funding ringfenced for HS2 to alternative transport schemes, it seemed that this kind of selective and carefully evaluated prioritisation had ensued, but as the days since have come and gone, there is some doubt as to the credibility of any plans. Any credit I might give Rishi Sunak and Co for having the guts to cull the next stage of HS2 is being wiped out by a sense that the public has been fobbed off by talk of alternatives. It didn’t take long for this government to revert to type when it comes to public transport policy (or lack of), but then again, it’s got a whole long list of wide-ranging and bigger problems to deal with.

This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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