Friday, January 21

Northern England transport planners reject ‘Noyster cards’



The 40-mile journey between Sheffield and Manchester can easily take two hours by car, and the fastest train takes 48 minutes.

Travellers in the north of England will not be offered a “Noyster card”, a contactless plastic smartcard based on London’s electronic ticketing system, after officials decided the technology was outdated.

Nor will a new east-west rail link be called “Crossrail for the north” after northern leaders took umbrage at the idea of a new line being named after one in the capital.

Instead, the priority for the new chief executive and chair of Transport for the North (TfN) is to improve east-west rail links in the region – including a possible new tunnel under the Pennines.

Speaking to the Guardian, David Brown, chief executive of TfN, said he wanted to persuade drivers to abandon their cars by making “sub-optimal” east-west rail links in the region faster, more pleasant and easier to use.

“Significant efforts have been put into improving north-south links. Now it’s the time to put in a comprehensive east-west plan,” he said.

He wants the chancellor, George Osborne, to commit “significant investment in rail movements east-west”, cutting journey times between Liverpool and Hull and then north to Newcastle and beyond.

The new rail link under consideration may include a new rail and road tunnel under the Pennines and has the working title northern powerhouse rail, said Brown. But he dismissed suggestions any new link could be called HS3 or Crossrail for the north.

“As a northerner I get fed up of being asked: ‘Do you want a Crossrail for the north?’ I say no, I want something that is northern, not a southern solution. But do we want a similar outcome?

Yes we do. We want big, fast, frequent trains that go at a reasonable speed across the north,” said Brown, who is a former chief executive of Merseyrail.

How the northern powerhouse rail line would be paid for is unclear. TfN, which will soon become a statutory transport commissioning body on a par with Transport for London (TfL), has an operational budget of just £10m a year, with the ability to bid for money from a £300m infrastructure pot – a tiny fund when you consider that Crossrail in London has cost £14.8bn.

Unlike its London counterpart, TfN will not have control over bus services, which were deregulated outside London in 1986.

Related: Transport for the north? Why devolved cities may copy the TfL model

Although Osborne claims the government has committed £13bn to improving transport in the north of England, Brown initially admitted he does not know where that figure came from.

A TfN press officer later emailed to say the sum comprised “just under £5bn on national [ie strategic] road schemes set out in the Roads Investment Strategy, £5bn on local transport schemes and local highways maintenance [note that this includes a range of modal schemes] and around £3bn on national rail schemes”.

But Osborne has also pledged £150m of what Brown insisted was “new money” to build a smart ticketing and information system that should allow travellers in the north of England to use contactless debit cards, phones or watches to travel across the region on different modes of transport without being ripped off.

“It’s not an Oyster card … We are putting something in for a next generation,” said Brown, adding the thinking behind smart ticketing was all about how to persuade drivers stuck in jams to take the train instead: “It’s about people sitting getting frustrated on the M62. What do they need that would persuade them to use a northern powerhouse rail system?

None of them say: ‘I want a blue card in my wallet.’ They want affordable travel that they know how much they are going to pay to use, with a system that is easy to use and that they can use on every train.”

He added: “What people want is certainty about what you are going to pay in a day. You’d want some sort of account which said ‘thanks for travelling across the north, you’re going to get a discount’, and not worrying if you have got on the right train or bus, or wondering ‘have I bought the right ticket?’”

Cutting journey times is also a priority. The 40-mile journey between Sheffield and Manchester over the Pennines can take two hours by car, and the fastest train takes 48 minutes.

John Cridland, chairman of Transport for the North. Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian

Building a new road and rail tunnel under the Pennines was a “bold” idea, said TfN’s chair, John Cridland, former director general of the CBI, who insisted that as a very new organisation having been founded in November, TfN was in the early days of creating a pan-northern transport system.

“We have economic assets, Manchester and Sheffield, that are completely disconnected at the moment,” he said, revealing that a feasibility study had shown digging a trans-Pennine tunnel with road and rail side by side was possible. “If you are building a single economic entity while respecting the fact there are still the Pennines in the way you need to run up the flag post some bold thinking,” he said.

Cridland said TfN was “the first physical manifestation of the ‘northern powerhouse’”.

Osborne has promised TfN £10m a year for the next four years as part of his plan for a “northern powerhouse” that would join together northern cities to create a counterweight to London.

The concept has been criticised in recent weeks after the government decided to close its biggest office outside London.

The decision by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) to close its Sheffield office by 2018, resulting in the loss of 240 jobs, was condemned by Labour as revealing the government’s “London-centric focus and contempt for the north of England”.

Cridland urged northerners to take the powerhouse concept seriously, saying he would not have taken the 30-day-a-year chairmanship if he thought it was an empty gimmick.

The devolution deals signed with Greater Manchester and other city regions showed Osborne was serious, he insisted: “I just see an opportunity, of London prepared to let go.

You have to almost pinch yourself a bit. [Osborne] has not just made a speech about it, he’s signing these deals, he’s signing off on things flowing in our direction.

“Secondly, just as important, I’m seeing civic and business leaders coming together in a coalition of the willing. That’s counterintuitive as well.

Two sides of the Pennines, different political parties lots of reasons why a one north vision has been elusive until now.

But London seems prepared to let go and leadership in the north is grabbing the opportunity … It feels pretty real to me.”