Westminster’s failure to build public transport in Leeds will be a disaster for Londoners

Briggate, Leeds, 2010. Note the lack of tram. Image: MTaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

The Leeds Supertram bill was first discussed in the House of Commons in 1991. I was six years old. The UK economy was three times the size of China’s. The first new buildings at Canary Wharf had not yet been completed, and debates to extend the Jubilee line there were just beginning.

Today China’s economy is well over three times the size of the UK’s. Canary Wharf has new tube stations and light rail stations. Its new Crossrail station will open in 2018.

There is still no tram in Leeds. It is the largest city in the EU with no mass transport system. Its twin city of Lille, very similar in many ways, has two metro lines, two tram lines, and international high-speed rail connections. Leeds has nothing.

Click to expand.

How did we get here?

In the 1990s, the Conservative government told Leeds to get started with supertram and promised money. The money never came.

When Labour came to power the governmet put a freeze on new infrastructure projects, and forced Leeds to re-work and reduce its proposal and re-apply.

The proposed map of the network. 

In 2005 the government cancelled the scheme completely and told Leeds that it could not proceed with any tram or light-rail project. Leeds was told to rework the tram system as a trolleybus.

Work continued through a coalition government until May 2016, when a public inquiry reported and the Department for Transport blocked Leeds from proceeding with the scheme. There are some good reasons and many bad reasons why Leeds must now start again with its ambitions to build a public transport scheme. I won’t discuss them here. Instead I’ll discuss the people who will suffer most from this failure.

Londoners will suffer

Leeds is projected to be Britain’s fastest growing city in the coming decades. It is one of the UK’s only cities that is planning not just to meet but to exceed its housing requirements. It is hungry and ready to retain the talent and generate the growth that currently leaves the North of England and fills up London.


For decades Leeds’ ambitions have been held back by congestion. I have lived and worked in London, Paris, Hanoi, Birmingham, and Leeds. Commuting in Leeds is the worst of all five. Congestion restricts and separates economic activity into small pockets of the city more than anywhere else I know.

Now, without the prospect of a public transport system any time soon, Leeds’ ambitions will be curtailed for further decades. Planning applications in outer Leeds will be refused because of congestion. Brownfield redevelopments in central Leeds will have to be built at a lower density for the same reason. More of the Northern, European, and global talent that calls Leeds home and that doesn’t want to live in London will reluctantly move south. People who do want to live in London will have to pay even more rent to compete with them for limited space. The UK’s economy will suffer. Our housing crisis will deepen.

Leeds and its neighbours were the original modern cities. We are desperate to continue our rebirth as modern European cities. We have worked with the UK government for 25 years to build a public transport system. Our resoundingly re-elected local government has planned a system and is now willing to pay for it itself. We are blocked from doing so.

Leeds will be fine. We will remain the UK’s best city for open data. We will still grow, just more slowly. But the growth and the ambition that we cannot now accommodate will spill over to London, a city that does not want to grow. House prices will rise, living standards will fall, and more money will need to be sent north to support an NHS and education system that our stunted economy cannot pay for itself.

 
 
 
 

“You don’t look like a train buff”: on sexism in the trainspotting community

A female guard on London’s former Metropolitan Railway. Image: Getty.

I am a railway enthusiast. I like looking at trains, I like travelling by train and I like the quirks of the vast number of different train units, transit maps and train operating companies.

I get goosebumps standing on a platform watching my train approach, eyeballing the names of the destinations on the dot matrix display over and over again, straining to hear the tinny departure announcements on the tannoy.  I’m fortunate enough to work on the site of a former railway station that not only houses beautiful old goods sheds, but still has an active railway line running alongside it. You can imagine my colleagues’ elation as I exclaim: “Wow! Look at that one!” for the sixth time that day, as another brilliantly gaudy freight train trundles past.

I am also a woman in my twenties. A few weeks my request to join a railway-related Facebook group was declined because I – and I quote here – “don’t look like a train buff”.

After posting about this exchange on Twitter, my outrage was widely shared. “They should be thrilled to have you!” said one. “What does a train buff look like?!” many others asked.

The answer, of course, is a middle-aged white man with an anorak and notebook. Supposedly, anyway. That’s the ancient stereotype of a “trainspotter”, which sadly shows no sign of waning.

I’m not alone in feeling marginalised in the railway community. Sarah, a railway enthusiast from Bournemouth, says she is used to funny looks when she tells people that she is not only into trains, but an engineer.

She speaks of her annoyance at seeing a poster bearing the phrase: “Beware Rail Enthusiasts Disease: Highly Infectious To Males Of All Ages”. “That did bug me,” she says, “because women can enjoy trains just as much as men.”


Vicki Pipe is best known as being one half of the YouTube sensation All The Stations, which saw her and her partner Geoff Marshall spend 2017 visiting every railway station in Great Britain.

“During our 2017 adventure I was often asked ‘How did your boyfriend persuade you to come along?’” she says. “I think some found it unusual that a woman might be independently interested or excited enough about the railways to spend sixteen weeks travelling to every station on the network.”

Pipe, who earlier this year travelled to all the stations in Ireland and Northern Ireland, is passionate about changing the way in which people think of the railways, including the perception of women in the industry.

“For me it’s the people that make the railways such an exciting place to explore – and many of these are women,” she explains. “Women have historically and continue to play an important part in the railway industry – throughout our journey we met female train drivers, conductors, station staff, signallers and engineers. I feel it is important that more female voices are heard so that women of the future recognise the railways as a place they too can be part of.”

Despite the progress being made, it’s clear there is still a long way to go in challenging stereotypes and proving that girls can like trains, too.

I’m appalled that in 2019 our life choices are still subjected to critique. This is why I want to encourage women to embrace their interests and aspirations – however “nerdy”, or unusual, or untraditionally “female” they may be – and to speak up for things that I was worried to speak about for so long.

We might not change the world by doing so but, one by one, we’ll let others know that we’ll do what we want – because we can.