Letter: Bristol also needs a Crossrail

The inconveniently located Bristol Temple Meads. Image: Rept0n1x/Wikipedia Commons.

Editor’s note: A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece setting out my – entirely speculative, and in some ways fairly silly – proposal for Birmingham Crossrail. This ‘news’ got picked up by the Birmingham Mail, as you do.

It also generated a fair bit of correspondence. Since, in one email, someone had gone to the trouble of coming up with an entire proposal for Bristol Crossrail, I thought it only fair to let you see that, too.

Dear Jonn,

I hope you don’t mind me writing to you, but following your Birmingham Crossrail article I wanted to share my Bristol version.

Since the creation of the West of England Combined Authority there have been many promising signs that the area’s transport network is due to change for the better (plans for a light rail system, road improvements and reopened railway lines and stations). But I feel there is one component missing which in my opinion is the ‘missing link’ to benefit the city of Bristol and the wider region around it.

Bristol Temple Meads station is used by 11m passengers a year: however, it is located on the outskirts of the city centre. The planned enterprise zone will encourage further investment into the area around it, but important parts of the city – like the main hospital, courts, shopping and entertainment areas – are quite far from the railway station compared to other cities like Cardiff, Birmingham etc. 

This is why based on examples of other non-UK cities I have come up with an idea for our own underground commuter rail tunnel – a sort of Crossrail, if you will, like the S-Bahn tunnels in Germany.

In the picture below, you will see that my proposal comprises of a 2 mile long tunnel from Clifton Down station on the Severn Beach Line (currently served by a train every 40 minutes) to Bristol Temple Meads. There would be new underground stations by the university & museum (called Museum), cenotaph (Central Station) and the new development known as Redcliff Quarter, as well as an underground Temple Meads station. Trains would exit the tunnel onto the railway tracks at Bristol east Junction. 

Jack’s Bristol Crossrail proposal. Trains on the Severn Beach line would run via the new tunnel in orange. A second service would run in a loop via the tunnel and Montpelier. New stations are shown in maroon.

Services from Avonmouth/Severn Beach to Bath Spa (part of our future MetroWest Phase 1) could be diverted through this tunnel at a frequency of 4 trains per hour. This would bypass Redland and Montpelier stations, so to keep services at those stations, a 4 train per hour circular service could be introduced using the tunnel calling at Temple Meads, Lawrence Hill, Stapleton Road, Montpelier, Redland, Clifton Down, Museum, Central, Redcliff Quarter then back to Temple Meads.


This would provide a service of a train every 7.5 minutes in the central core. Passengers on other lines could make a quick change at Temple Meads to get into the city proper.

These new stations would make the entire inner city a 5-10 mins walk from a train station, decrease traffic, increase investment in the city centre and patronage on our railway network, and free capacity at Temple Meads for more long distance services. 

The inclusion of this tunnel would see rail passengers soar: this has been the case in cities such as Auckland, which had a similar problem before digging a rail tunnel. Value for money in Crossrail type tunnels has been found in cities similar size to Bristol including Malmö, Leipzig, and Palermo, to name a few. I see no reason why the same wouldn’t apply to a UK city.

Large rail projects always seem to be for London’s benefit, which – as the capital – does make an awful lot of sense. However previously, someone had the vision to create the underground Merseyrail tunnels in Liverpool in the 1970s, and the Tyne and Wear Metro in the 1980s. Since then, not one underground rail project outside London has been financed. I hope this will soon change.

Kind regards

    Jack Gill, Bristol

If you have an over-ambitious rail proposal for your city, why not get in touch?

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“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

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

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