Eight ways transport can put post-industrial towns back on the map

Huddersfield station, with Harold Wilson. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

Cities, as major drivers of the UK economy, have rightly been the focus of much of the debate about urban transport policy. But this shouldn’t be at the expense of the many post-industrial towns which also form part of wider city regions. And with the move to city region mayors and the outcome of the EU referendum, greater attention is now being given to how towns can realise their potential.

The UK’s 900 odd mid-sized towns are home to 9m people, around 13 per cent of our total population – so it’s time for towns to be given their share of the policy spotlight.

The Urban Transport Group has sought to do this in its new report About towns, which highlights how transport initiatives can play their part in helping them to thrive. Here are eight ways in which better transport can help post-industrial towns.

1. Reinforcing civic pride and identity

Post-industrial towns are often characterised by a history of innovation and graft, and the exceptional quality of some of the built environment that has survived is testament to their achievements. Towns can reflect and capitalise on this unique built environment by reinvigorating stations and public transport interchanges which bolster and reinforce local identity as landmarks or symbols of a town’s industrial past or its future ambitions. Huddersfield’s grand neo-classical railway station, for example, is a monument to the town’s rich textile heritage, impressing upon visitors who path beneath its columns.

Stations also have wider uses for community purposes and local enterprises. The revitalisation of derelict spaces in Scotland’s Kilmarnock Station, for example – complete with bookshop, event space and café – has transformed it into a vibrant community hub and led to passenger growth. It has also been part of the wider revival of the town centre, including links with a new town centre college campus.

2. Reinvesting as ‘anchor institutions’

Transport organisations can also act as local ‘anchor institutions’, using their considerable purchasing power to procure goods and services from local suppliers, and, in doing so, make a significant contribution to towns’ economies. Midland Metro Alliance, which is behind the extension of the West Midland’s tram network, is doing just that, aiming for 80 per cent of the project’s supply chain to be from local businesses.

3. Opening up access to jobs

Transport is vital in enabling people to find and sustain work in and beyond towns: after all, commuting accounts for the second highest number of trips the average person make each year, after shopping.

But aside from ensuring the provision of transport to and from jobs, there is also a need to overcome financial and perceptual barriers. Job Access Schemes, which provide information on how to get to job interviews, as well as support for the cost of travelling to interviews and new jobs, exist in a number of UK towns.

4. Providing access to education

It’s hard to improve your skills or education if you can’t physically access the colleges, campuses or universities which provide them. And a staggering 72 per cent of students take the bus to college.

Where the further education sector has located new facilities in town centres close to new public transport interchanges – such as in Rotherham – It has breathed in new life and vibrancy by making education highly accessible. Fares initiatives for young people have also proved successful, with the ‘MyTicket’ offer leading to a 142 per cent increase in bus journeys by young people in the Liverpool city region between 2014 and 2017.

5. Offering access to social and leisure activities

Given that most journeys are for other reasons than work or education, transport is key to ensuring that people in towns can travel for social and leisure purposes. The 12-mile circular New Town Trail for pedestrians and cyclists in the Scottish towns of Irvine and Kilwinning is one such offer, taking in many local landmarks and areas of interest including castles, nature reserves and a country park.


6. Opening up investment opportunities

Towns that are “open for business” require good local transport connections. The Kingsway Business Park in Rochdale – built by the public and private sector to provide a site to boost local employment – has access to the M62, a new Metrolink stop, a Local Link flexible bus service, as well as walking and cycling routes.

Additionally, transport investment can benefit towns when it is considered as part of wider cross-sector initiatives such as employment and education. Nexus, which operates Tyne and Wear’s Metro, has begun building a £8.4mn learning centre in South Shields town which will deliver rail training for its staff, and boost skills and access to jobs for the local community.

7. Meeting housing demand

With rising pressure to build more homes, joining up housing and transport strategy is vitally important to ensure new homes foster the kind of lifestyles which support the viability of towns, rather than draw people away from them. Known by the American term ‘transit-oriented development’, a number of towns are embracing this approach of situating high-density housing near transport hubs which can make them more attractive to residents, limit urban sprawl, and reduce car dependency and congestion.

8. Improving health and wellbeing of residents

Creating pleasant, attractive and safe street environments within towns can improve the health and wellbeing of residents; so does ensuring they can access work, learning and social opportunities, as well as healthcare facilities.

Transport can play its part in creating healthier towns by providing more space for walking and cycling, creating inviting public spaces for people to linger and interact, and offering transport options that reduce noise and air pollution – and which are affordable, too. NHS England is creating 10 ‘healthy new towns’ across the country, where the design of the built environment is being linked to the provision of health care services to combat the challenges of obesity, dementia and community cohesion.

At the same time as highlighting these examples of what transport can do, the report’s overarching message is that flagship, capital investment schemes are unlikely to be enough on their own. It is different types of initiatives, knitted together under a coordinated approach, that are needed if towns are to truly thrive.

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group. ‘About towns: How transport can help towns thrive’ is available to download here.

 
 
 
 

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:

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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.