Capital investment in transport across English cities is welcome, but we must not forget London. Its success must be maintained

50 year old Bakerloo line trains being maintained

I am writing this column after our work Christmas party, which was held in Manchester. Unfortunately, the Urban Transport Group team didn’t get invited to the Chanel Metiers d’Art that was held in the city’s trendy Northern Quarter on the same evening (if you have no idea what that is, give it a Google). Instead, I brought the team to South Manchester, to sample the sights and sounds of Stretford and Chorlton, areas of Greater Manchester that have benefited hugely from transport investment over the past few decades.

I recently moved to Stretford, a town that is within touching distance of arguably the greatest football team on Earth – Manchester United – and an area that is sandwiched between the heart of the city centre (which is merely a few tram stops away) and the banks of the River Mersey and the Chorlton Nature Reserve to the south. As a lad from Tameside, a borough towards the east of Greater Manchester, South Manchester is very different. Firstly, it is less hilly – great if you love cycling and hate hills. Secondly, it has the Metrolink (part of the newly launched Bee Network), the UK’s largest and most successful light rail system in the UK.

Now, that isn’t to say that areas like Tameside and other boroughs are not well connected – they are. There are relatively good rail and bus connections that feed into the city but also into local towns and villages that pepper the outer boroughs of Greater Manchester. What is visibly different, however, is the transformational impact of having targeted investment in public transport that gives people confidence to get out of their cars and off the roads for the bulk of their regular journeys.

For those who are not familiar with iconic Metrolink, it started running on lines in Greater Manchester during the early 90’s and has expanded since then, with routes reaching seven of the ten boroughs of Greater Manchester. Two things were vitally important to get the project off the ground: first, a local vision and second, money.

On the first, Greater Manchester had been exploring ideas for a rapid transport system for a while, with various iterations of what could be achievable. However, the local passenger transport executive settled on the idea of existing heavy rail lines from Bury to Manchester Victoria as well as the line from Cornbrook Junction to Altrincham to be converted to support light rail – Metrolink was born.

The second requirement was money, and following a funding agreement with the Treasury, Metrolink started service in 1992. Since then, a variety of evidence, the most recent being CEPA Economic Matters’ Transformational impacts of transport investment (from April this year), which suggested that Metrolink has greatly improved public transport across the city region and has been, well, “transformational” for some of the areas along the route. Evidence also suggests that there has been a positive net impact on house prices.


So, why is this important? This, and other case studies cited in the CEPA report, clearly demonstrate the economic and broader regeneration benefits of capital investment in our public transport network. Although the CEPA report does not go into detail about broader social value outputs, it does show that transport investment can afford us local economic returns.

It is in this context that we should also reflect on the past few months and the early ‘Christmas presents’ that the government has bestowed on our city regions.

Following on from Network North and the King’s Speech, we have had the final instalment – the Autumn Statement, an event which always causes a flurry of activity in city region transport authorities across the country.

This year, a few early Christmas gifts were confirmed in Network North, most notably the uplift to City Region Sustainable Transport Settlements (CRSTS) and more money for potholes! The Autumn Statement also confirmed a new ‘Level 4’ devolution framework which included a mix of warm words and further commitments to support progress on deeper devolution. And the Christmas tree topper was the Memorandum of Understanding between government, Greater Manchester, and the West Midlands, outlining the approach to the single funding settlements which will be implemented at the next Spending Review.

However, there were two important things missing from the statement. Firstly, we still lack long-term clarity over revenue support beyond the next couple of years. This is a priority that needs to be sorted. Secondly, there was no mention whatsoever regarding funding for our capital city, and UTG member, Transport for London.

We all know how hugely important London is to the UK economy and as many city region mayors will say, the aspiration for their local areas is a London-style transport system, delivered through a “London-style” funding deal. As someone who lived in the capital for nearly five years in the late 90’s and early 00’s and has always had a job linked to London since then, I can see why we all aspire to a ‘turn up and go’, ‘tap on tap off’, ‘simple, capped pay as you go’ system that is reliable, interconnected, with a single, identifiable brand.

And contrary to what you may read in some of the press, transport in London is recovering. Passenger numbers have recovered to just shy of 90% of pre-pandemic ridership, with weekend travel regularly above 2019 levels. Demand for public transport has increased substantially in 2022/23 with ridership 31% higher than in 2021/22. In 2023/24, year on year growth is forecast to be 7%.

Remarkably, TfL is on track to achieve an operating surplus in 2023/24, with revenues covering the costs of operating and maintaining the existing transport network

Remarkably, TfL is on track to achieve an operating surplus in 2023/24, with revenues covering the costs of operating and maintaining the existing transport network.

When it comes to capital spending, using money generated across its operations to reinvest into the network matched with other funding, TfL can cover over 75% of its capital expenditure requirements for the next financial year. Overall, things are looking bright!

However, the absence of a deal for next year could potentially mean delaying the replacement of the oldest fleet of trains in the UK – the Bakerloo Line trains – by years, and a setback to service improvements on the Piccadilly Line, which contributes to over 10% of London Underground’s overall ridership.

In turn, a lack of government support and consequent weakening of the transport offer in London would undermine investors’ confidence in the city, taking a step backwards in our economic recovery. This would have a national impact in terms of the Gross Value Added to the economy. We mustn’t lose the opportunity to continue to deliver a more efficient, reliable and sustainable public transport network which will attract people, businesses and investment to the capital, and bring benefits for the whole country.

At the beginning of this piece, I spoke about the transformational impact of transport investment in Greater Manchester. A clear vision supported by a funding partnership with government has made a huge impact in the city region and across the North, with benefits being felt decades later. This capital investment in Metrolink years ago, and the new CRSTS funds more recently, will continue to help areas like Greater Manchester reach their ambition of a fully integrated London-style public transport system that can support the economy, bring people to public transport, and help improve revenues.

However, London – it can be argued – has been a real trailblazer for public transport in the UK for many years, with investment in tube lines and more recently the Elizabeth Line having transformational impacts on the communities they serve and the local economy. It is a model that other areas aspire to replicate to support local growth and maximise the benefits of agglomeration. That’s why the phrase “London-style” funding deal has been so widely used: the ability to think long-term and plan investment across multiple years is what has enabled TfL to succeed. It’s great that this need has been recognised in the CRSTS model for other major cities.

London, without a long-term, multi-year capital funding settlement of its own, could see a reverse of decades of hard work to get people onto public transport

But we are now at risk of this work being undone in the very place it started. London, without a long-term, multi-year capital funding settlement of its own, could see a reverse of decades of hard work to get people onto public transport.
It is important at this point to give praise where it is due – in this case to central government. Although it is not always an easy process, many across the transport sector, in and out of London, would agree that the level of pragmatism to work together for the betterment of public transport is stronger than ever.

So, as we approach the festive break, let’s hope that there is one more Christmas cracker that will make sure all our city regions are given the support they need to start the New Year on a positive footing. Merry Christmas one and all.

This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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