Why does Britain find it so much easier to build transport between cities than within them?

Sheffield SuperTram. Image: Rept0n1x/Wikimedia Commons.

A few quick thoughts on a mystery, of sorts, I’ve been pondering for some time.

We know that, by European standards at least, most British cities have pretty poor public transport. We have good reasons for suspecting, at least, that this might be one reason why our big cities under-perform many of their continental peers.

And there’s evidence, too, that – if the point of investing in public transport is to improve city economies – you’re better off improving links within cities than between them. I’ve written about that before, but the basic argument is pretty intuitive. The reason poor transport is an economic problem is that it makes it difficult to get people from houses in the suburbs to jobs in the centre. Making it slightly easier to get from one city centre to another is a fat lot of use if people can’t get there in the first place.

And yet, time and time again, this latter is the problem that Britain’s Department for Transport seems most concerned with solving. The two big non-London projects on the table in recent years have been:

1) High Speed 2, a new north-south rail line which will improve travel times between other major cities and the capital, and so is a dubious candidate for the label “non-London project”;

2) High Speed 3/Northern Powerhouse Rail/Crossrail for the North, which will improve links between the cities of the M62 corridor, but won’t do much for the vast numbers of people within them who don’t live that close to a station.

Neither of these projects seems likely to solve the problem identified above. So what gives?

Pat of the problem, one suspects, is austerity. Budgets have been cut, and capital budgets most of all – so to be one of the lucky few to make it through the net major investment projects have to work very hard to justify the cost.

The easiest way to do that is to benefit a lot of people. In London, that’s easy, because there are a lot of people living or working in a very small space. In the rest of the country, though, it’s harder. A full-scale Leeds Metro network would serve, even in the most generous interpretations, a population of around 1m people. Building one, then, would mean spending an awful large chunk of the transport budget on a tiny share of the population.


There’s more. If the government were to pour significant cash into a full-scale metro network for Leeds, it is, let’s be charitable, unlikely that this would be received in Liverpool and Newcastle and Sheffield as a welcome investment in the wider north. Not unreasonably, residents of those cities would instead treat it as nothing much to do with them, and instead demand their own. Budgets being what they are, government is unlikely to deliver. So that shiny new Leeds Metro just annoyed far more people than it pleased.

Crossrail for the North, though, avoids both these problems. It’ll improve connections between cities with a combined population of perhaps 10m people: a whole order of magnitude more than our Leeds metro, so looks much better on paper. It also, by serving Liverpool and Manchester and Bradford and Hull, means that more people will see it as an investment in their area, and will support the proposal rather than whining about it.

Result: more people feel ownership of the project; fewer people complain. In other words, we’re chucking money at the wrong things, because they look like more people will benefit, rather than because they actually will.

I don’t really see a way a solution to this in Whitehall. The Department for Transport is a national body: by definition it has to manage competing interests, and the result, inevitably, is jam-spreading.

This to me seems like a very good argument for stronger local government with the power to make its own investment decision. A Leeds City Regional transport authority could focus on building a metro for the Leeds City Region, without having to pay the slightest attention to the existence of Hull.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m missing something. If so, do let me know.

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

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Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.