After a major northern transport conference in Newcastle this week, is the region any closer to getting the bus and rail improvements it so badly wants and needs? No, and as far as rail is concerned even less so following news that High Speed Rail between London, Crewe and Manchester (HS2) is being delayed by another two years.
Significant improvements to the North East’s bus network, making it cheaper and easier for passengers to use, almost certainly are coming in a few years’ time. But we have known that since the government announced a devolution deal for the region on 28 December.
Rail improvements are a different matter. They will either remain under the control of the government or, if devolved, will require local politicians to commit much of their funding. And they will take much longer.
North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll told the Transport for the North (TfN) conference, according to ChronicleLive, that he would create a “total single network” allowing travel across bus, Metro and rail services around the entirety of Tyne & Wear, County Durham, and Northumberland using a single ticket – with a daily cap on fare prices.
This is a realistic ambition, given that the North East Devolution Deal includes bus franchising, which will give local leaders control over bus services, routes and fares. London already has a similar system and Greater Manchester is getting one.
The North East Deal specifically states:
“The North East Mayor will have access to bus franchising powers under the Transport Act 2000. This will provide the opportunity to further develop high quality bus services as part of an integrated local transport system and help to facilitate the delivery of smart, integrated ticketing across all local modes of transport in the city region.”
That seems clear enough, and the money is there too in the shape of a £563mn capital grant by 2026/27 under the City Regional Sustainable Transport Settlement (CRSTS), with more to follow later, and £73.8mn capital and £89.8mn resource funding for he Bus Service Improvement Plan.
The basis of smart and integrated ticketing is also already in existence in the form of the “Pop” brand managed by Nexus, the Tyne & Wear Passenger Transport Executive, for use on bus and Metro.
According to the Devolution Deal:
“The North East Mayoral Combined Authority (NEMCA) and Nexus plan to develop the ‘Pop’ brand so that it can deliver smart, capped, simple integrated ticketing across all local modes of transport in the city region…The government recognises that this is a priority for the NEMCA which they will prioritise in their CRSTS plans”.
The prospects for improving rail services are far from as clear. Northern mayors are angry at the current state of services in the region, which could be hit by 23,000 cancellations this year; and they want re-instatement of the eastern leg of High Speed Rail (HS2) from Birmingham to Leeds and onwards to York and Newcastle, as well as Northern Powerhouse Rail across the Pennines. This is wholly or largely under the control of the government and now looks less likely than ever.
In the North East, politicians are campaigning for the re-opening of the Leamside Line. The 34-km line would link the Tyne & Wear Metro at Pelaw with the East Coast Main Line at Ferryhill in County Durham, with stations at Penshaw, Fence Houses, Belmont and Shincliffe/Bowburn. If the Stillington Line was re-opened as well trains could continue via Sedgefield to Stockton, providing a new Tyne-Tees link.
The Leamside Line would also enable the construction of a new Metro loop from Pelaw to South Hylton, with new stations at Follingsby, Washington North (International Advanced Manufacturing Park) and Washington South.
However the Metro loop alone would cost £745mn and the Devolution Deal is much more circumspect about these plans going ahead. It says:
“The government recognises the aspirations of the region for the re-opening of the Leamside Line and will work closely with the NEMCA to develop the business case for the introduction of Metro services along the line to South Hylton via Washington, and the reintroduction of local rail services to Ferryhill and Sedgefield, and the use of the line by freight services.
“The government commits to supporting the NEMCA and Nexus to generate proposals, develop business cases and identify funding routes for these enhancements where it is shown that the proposed schemes would deliver appropriate value for money to the taxpayer and subject to funding availability.”
While Mayor Driscoll’s aspirations for bus franchising are realistic, the North East’s ambitions for the Leamside Line and Washington Metro loop remain as uncertain as they were before this week’s conference. This was made clear when the Transport Secretary, Mark Harper, told local leaders:
“Easy promises to get applause at events and conferences like this around the country are not credible if people don’t have plans to pay for them. Ministers also have a duty to the taxpayer to set out well thought-through, costed promises.”
It seemed to be acknowledged by Mayor Driscoll that there is a lot of work still to be done before the Leamside Line is re-opened. Driscoll, who is running for North East mayor in elections next year, told ChronicleLive:
“Sometimes the job of a politician is not to spell out every detail, it is to say ‘at the end of this decade, we will put a man on the moon’. I am saying we can build this transport system and, if I am the mayor, we will.”