A year of change for the north

Source: RTM April/May 2018

Achieving statutory status represents a landmark moment for northern transport and will have an enormous impact on what be achieved over the coming years, says Barry White (pictured, left), chief executive of Transport for the North (TfN).

TfN has just taken up statutory powers, becoming England’s first subnational transport body. It’s a moment that marks the start of a transformational era of investment and strategic planning for northern transport.

This has been a seminal month for northern transport. We are now a standalone organisation with statutory powers to enact the transformational change we want to see in the region’s transport networks. That’s a big deal.

Government has consistently challenged the north on exactly what we want. It’s taken two years of collaboration and meticulous planning to get to this point, but we can now begin to answer that question with one united voice. It’s incumbent on us to put aside an “it’ll do” mentality and respond to that call from government with detail, with scale, with ambition and a detailed route map of how to make it a reality.

For the first time, the north’s transport needs lie with those living and working in the region, in what is a landmark moment for devolution of power from London. Now is the time for us to speak with absolute clarity on what we will do and how we will achieve this.

So much bigger than one city

Let’s be clear. We are similar to Transport for London only in name. Our challenge – to reverse decades of underinvestment and improve connectivity across the whole of the north – is so much bigger than one city.

We already have delivery bodies that run our networks across the north and raise revenue across not only city regions, such as Liverpool and Manchester, but our towns and rural areas that are often overlooked.

Our role is more strategic. We listen to the north and communicate to the government of the day how, where and when investment should happen. To do that, we not only need to set the agenda on key aspects such as rail improvements and investment, but we also need to deliver compelling evidence and strong business cases to accompany our plan-making.

Comparisons to London detract from the real story. That’s one of a once-in-a-generation chance to migrate from a localised approach to transport planning, to a pan-northern vision that tackles the cross-boundary improvements that will make tangible differences to people’s journeys. It also does a disservice to the scale of the partnership we’ve witnessed across the public and private sector. Getting 56 local authorities, including 19 constituent authorities, to back one overarching mission is not an easy task, but it has been done. Combine this with the involvement and input of representatives from all 11 of the north’s LEPs who sit on our board and it really is clear that our approach is unique.  

Leveraging statutory status to drive economic growth

Statutory status is a technicality, but an important one. It makes us a formal partner so that the government has to take our views into account and consult us when decisions affecting northern transport are being made.

Our powers allow us to develop and implement a Strategic Transport Plan; coordinate and deliver smart ticketing; become a statutory partner on road and rail investment decisions; and act as ‘one voice’ to the secretary of state on transport issues affecting the north.

While this is all very important, even more important are the outcomes that we want to achieve by doing this. Research has shown a significant economic prize – of 850,000 additional jobs in the north by 2050 – could be ours if we get the right infrastructure at the right time.

Against a backdrop of a predicted post-Brexit drop in GVA, this investment couldn’t be more timely to ensure the north remains competitive and its infrastructure fit for purpose for global business.

Action now and for future generations

We’ve hit the ground running on our vision. While we have a far-reaching role to map growth across the decades, we’re also delivering now.

Our team has spent the best part of this year consulting on a draft Strategic Transport Plan, a 30-year blueprint for infrastructure investment. Taking in major road schemes and flagship rail improvements, the plan (of which a final version will be published by the end of the year) will be an ambitious template that the north will get behind.

Rail is central to this vision. Our communities and businesses deserve a modern, efficient and reliable network. To achieve this we need radical change. Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) is a full-network approach to delivering this and one of our major programmes already underway. In the next year, we’ll explore engineering feasibility and route corridors for new infrastructure and priorities for improvement. This will take in how our networks accommodate unprecedented passenger growth and integrate with the freight network and HS2. We’re already seeing over £1bn investment in the north’s railways; that’s before we submit a Strategic Outline Business Case for NPR – which we’ll do within a year.

In the long term, the effects of this programme will be staggering. It’ll bring 1.3 million people within an hour’s reach of four of more of the north’s largest cities, a figure which stands at just 10,000 currently. It’ll change the way people commute and where they can work, allow businesses to be unconstrained by their location, and increase productivity.

The rail network will also see more big changes. Statutory status has seen the incorporation of Rail North and its operations into TfN. As the DfT’s co-client, we have an instrumental role to play in ensuring the commitments outlined within the transformational TransPennine and Northern franchises are delivered for the north’s passengers.

Smart ticketing will make it easier for passengers to travel around the north. Phase 1 is already being rolled out and we’ll be submitting a business case for the next phase in 2018. As well as setting the investment priorities working with Network Rail, we’ll also play a role in delivering new trains as part of our co-management of the Northern and TransPennine Express franchises.

Given the scale of ambition, change won’t be overnight. But this year will be pivotal for what’s to come. Our team, and the many partners behind this vision, are fired up to deliver real change.




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