Bradford is beautiful. So why isn’t it booming?

The Wool Exchange, Bradford. Image: Jon Farnam/Wikimedia Commons.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities. 

On a map, Bradford looks like it’s slap bang in the middle of the country. On the ground, it doesn’t feel that way.

Quite the opposite, in fact. The city centre is bypassed by the trans-Pennine M62 and relies on the tiny, sluggish Bradford Spur, the M606, to connect it to the national motorway network. Its two stations each lie at the end of the line, too: trains from Manchester to Leeds literally have to reverse out of Bradford Interchange to serve the city. “It’s like we’re in a cul-de-sac,” the council leader, Labour’s Susan Hinchcliffe says. As a result, “we’ve not made the best of our central position.”

The difficulty of getting to Bradford is perhaps one reason why such a big city would remain quite so unknown. It’s under 10 miles from Leeds and not much smaller, but it’s been consistently over-shadowed by its larger, richer neighbour: the fact Bradford has been barred from the Core Cities group of major regional centres is a source of some bitterness among local politicos. Wages and productivity remain low, even compared to nearby cities. And while it retains a relatively big local manufacturing sector, the sort of high-value business services that generally make for prosperity are conspicuous by their absence.

 

Bradford’s economy, compared to selected nearby cities. Image: Centre for Cities.

There are a few things the city is famous for: it’s home to the National Science & Media Museum, and its large Asian population means it’s also meant to be one of the best places in Britain to get a decent curry. (A local conservative councillor, Simon Cooke, has argued it should re-position itself as the capital of Asian Britain.) But generally speaking, if outsiders think of Bradford at all, they picture somewhere shabby, crumbling and poor.

This is, in all honesty, a bit of a shame – because for all the city’s problems, its centre is quite stunningly beautiful. The rapid rise of the textile industry in the 19th century packed the place with gorgeous gothic revival architecture; its equally rapid decline in the 20th meant that the local council lacked the money for the sort of utopian redevelopment schemes that might have destroyed it.

And so, by and large, it remains: Bradford is one of the best preserved Victorian cities in Britain, and I defy you to find a better looking book shop than the Waterstones in the Wool Exchange anywhere in the world.

Inside the Wool Exchange. Image: Casliber/Wikimedia Commons.

It’s getting better looking, too. For more than a decade, the city centre was dominated by a large and unsightly hole, where lack of funding and the financial crash meant development had stalled. A few years ago, though, this was finally filled in, and re-opened in 2015 as The Broadway shopping centre.

The same development saw large chunks of the surrounding streetscape pedestrianised, and a stretch of road outside the Victorian City Hall replaced by the City Park, complete with mirror pool, fountains and cafes. The park, Hinchcliffe says, has given the city a focal point and event space. “It means our diverse population can come together and feel ownership of the city.”

Centenary Square, City Park, with the City Hall on the right. Image: Bradford Buzz/Wikimedia Commons.

More changes are on the way. The council is helping fund the redevelopment of the grand 1930s Odeon building as a 4,000 seater music and events venue, to be operated by the same group as Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre. And the opening of the Broadway has pulled the city’s shopping district down the hill, towards the Little Germany conservation area. The old indoor market is following it, moving halfway down to a building that once housed a Marks & Spencer. Its current site will be redeveloped as homes.

The hope is that, as the population of the city centre increases, nightlife and other signs of vibrant city life will follow. All of this, Hinchcliffe says, is about bringing a measure of pride back to the city – as well as the affluent nearby towns covered by the council, but which currently prefer not to associate with it. “We want people to say they live in Ilkley in Bradford,” she adds, “not Ilkley near Leeds.”

But a shiny new city centre will only get you so far – and the city still faces two big problems.

One is the one we came in on: transport. There are fairly regular train services to both Leeds and Manchester, but the trains are too old, too slow and frequently, thanks to Northern, too late. Direct services to London are operated by Grand Central – but they wind their way around the West Riding before joining the East Coast Main Line, meaning it’s generally quicker to go via Leeds.

The roads aren’t much better, notes Ian Williams, a director of the West & North Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce. Keighley, a town to the north west of the borough, “has a very strong manufacturing sector. But the issue it faces is getting to the motorway network.”

The Northern Powerhouse Rail plan. Click to expand. Image: TfGM.

On the former problem at least, hope is on the horizon: Bradford recently won its battle to get a stop on the proposed Northern Powerhouse Rail, a partially new route connecting Liverpool to Hull. That won’t happen for decades, if at all; but if it does it will boost the city’s prospects, as both a commuter town for Leeds and Manchester and as a centre in its own right.

The other problem, argues the Centre for Cities’ head of policy Paul Swinney, is skills. Bradford has one of the least qualified populations in the country: the Centre ranks it as 57th out of 59 on GCSE results, and 60th out of 63 on share of population with higher education. Without addressing that, Swinney says, the city won’t be able to attract the jobs and businesses it needs to boom.

“You go to the centre of Bradford and it’s beautiful,” he adds. “You can tell it was once thriving as it had the money to spend on those great buildings. But the challenge has been that, once the generators of that wealth disappeared, it struggled to attract new ones.”


Better connections to the national transport network will only get you so far. After all: “Doncaster and Stoke have good transport links – and they’re not doing so well, either.”

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

 
 
 
 

What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.