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Why I welcome the Bus Services Bill

Thursday, January 19th, 2017
First Greater Manchester operate a high proportion of services locally

First Greater Manchester operate a high proportion of services locally

If ever a list were to be drawn up of the worst pieces of legislation ever passed, the 1985 Transport Act would be on it. The deregulation of bus services outside of Greater London that it implemented (why was London exempt if it was such a good idea?) led to fragmentation, higher fares and falling passenger numbers. Greater Manchester is a prime example of this.

Locally there are two major players in the bus market, Stagecoach and First. It was claimed that deregulation would drive down fares by allowing competition between operators, however there are very few places in Greater Manchester where the two companies actually compete. Instead the conurbation has been carved up with First operating the majority of services in the North and Stagecoach in the South. Essentially we’ve swapped a public monopoly for two private ones.

This has allowed the two firms to charge whatever fares they believe they can get away with and flood the profitable corridors with buses to keep any sniff of competition of the road – despite many of the vehicles running barely half full for much of the day. For example, if I want to travel from Ashton to Oldham on the bus, what choice do I have? It’s First’s 409 or a fair old walk! Equally, from Hyde to Manchester it’s just Stagecoach’s 201. And if you ever do need to make a journey that uses services operated by more than one operator, from Mossley to Denton for example, you’ll have fork out for a more expensive ‘System One’ ticket.

Even more frustrating is when you consider the public money given to the firms in the form of subsidies. Bus operators receive a fuel subsidy called the ‘Bus Service Operator Grant’ for all services they run, even those on the profitable corridors. The operators then ask for an additional grant to run services that are not profitable but are deemed socially necessary such as those serving the more rural parts of Tameside which would otherwise be cut off. That’s a lot of tax payer’s money being paid to essentially enable large multinational companies to make a profit. There has to be a better way surely?

Now make no mistake, I’m not calling for more on road competition. The bus wars on Oxford Road in South Manchester are the clearest local example that such a thing recreated on Hyde Road, Ashton New Road or Oldham road would be a disaster for air pollution and congestion. However, if we are to have competition, we must have a system that ensures that it is genuine and that gets the biggest bang for the public buck. That’s why I welcome the 2016 Bus Services Bill.

The Bus Services Bill will hand power over the regulation of bus services to the new Greater Manchester Mayor. Just like in London, locally accountable politicians will be able to control the routes, frequency and fares and design a network that is responsive to local need, affordable, and complements, rather than competes with, the heavy rail and Metrolink services. The competition will be taken off the road and in to the process of letting the contracts to run services. This regulated system in the capital has led to a flat £1.50 single fare and a strong upward trend in the number of passenger journeys on London’s buses since 2000. This is in stark contrast to the rest of the country where bus use is in steady decline.

And so the improvement on offer for transport is one of the many reasons I am such a fierce supporter of the Greater Manchester Devolution deal. Devolution is a journey and as the combined authority grows and shows that it can make a success of the powers it is entrusted with in my view we should look to expand our reach. Whilst it may be bus services today, in transport terms the next logical step in my mind is railway stations and local commuter railway services. Then where, who knows? But whichever path we take I am firmly of the view that there are many powers, currently exercised in the corridors of parliament that would be far better exercised in the corridors of Greater Manchester’s Town Halls.

Linking Up The North

Wednesday, August 24th, 2016

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For those concerned about the transport infrastructure of the North there was more good news recently as the government, in partnership with Highways England and Transport for the North, released the results of their Trans-Pennine Tunnel Study. The study, commissioned in late 2015, was set up to examine the case for improving the transport links between Sheffield and Manchester.

What they’ve produced is nothing less than the blueprint for the most ambitious road-building scheme in the North since the construction of the motorways. The report shortlists three corridors in which a Manchester-Sheffield tunnel could be built under the Peak District National Park. The first “corridor” begins between the A627(M) in Oldham and Ashton-under-Lyne and ends at Junction 37 of the M1 near Barnsley. The second corridor would connect the M60 close to the M67 to the M1 north of Sheffield by tunnelling under the A628 Woodhead Pass. The final corridor would start between junctions 24 and 25 of the M60 close to Denton and end near Junction 35 of the M1 by the Meadowhall Shopping Centre. With predicted lengths of between 10 or 18 miles depending on the exact route taken, the final proposal could very well end up being longer than Norway’s Laerdal Tunnel, which at 15.2 miles is the current longest road tunnel in the world.

More important than the length is the economic benefits the route will provide to the North. It has long been known that the poor connectivity between the great cities of the North is economically damaging for the individual cities and economically damaging for the North as a whole. The proposed Manchester-Sheffield tunnel is expected to cut travel times by up to 30 minutes for both passenger and freight traffic. An underground route also protects the unique wildlife and habitats of the Peak District National Park, and will not suffer from delays and closures due to poor weather in the way that affects many of the existing roads going over the Pennines. Done properly, this could be the catalyst for increased investment in the North through improved access to jobs, suppliers, accommodation (both private and business) and warehousing.

A final report at the end of the year will assess the cost estimates and the strategic and economic cases for each tunnel corridor, after which a final decision on the route will be made. Many in the North, most notably our very own Johnathan Reynolds, have been arguing for this level of investment for years, and the responsibility now falls to us to hold the government to keeping its promises. That might sound pessimistic, but after the debacle over the electrification of the Trans-Pennine rail last year it is right that we remain alert to any actual or potential signs of backtracking. I’d also like to see a final proposal that makes a serious attempt to incorporate solutions for other long-standing infrastructure issues in Tameside, most notably the traffic blackspot between Mottram, Hollingworth and Tintwistle. Finally, while the Manchester-Sheffield tunnel is part of the solution to transport infrastructure in the North, it is not the whole solution. We must not be so distracted by the lure of grand infrastructure projects that we lose track of the more mundane investments in road, rail and other transport that will also release significant economic benefits. The answer isn’t a, b or c, it’s “All of the above”.

I’ve said many times in the past that we cannot hope to have a Champions League economy while we’re burdened with Sunday League infrastructure. It is my hope, and my expectation, that this report is the first step on the road to unleashing the true potential of the North.

A Better Deal on Trains

Friday, August 19th, 2016

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What costs £95 in Germany, £37 in Italy, £56 in Spain, £234 in France and a whopping £358 in Britain? The answer is the monthly cost of a season ticket for a 30 mile train ride in those countries. By raw numbers and as a proportion of income, Britain is the most expensive place in Europe to take a train, and it’s only going to get worse after the announcement this week that railway fares were due to rise by another 1.9% next year.

It’s not like we get a better deal for the extra money we pay either. In the past month or so, a litany of incompetence at Southern Rail led to 350 trains being cancelled in one day, the resignation of a Minister, workers going out on strike and calls for the entire franchise to be withdrawn from the operator. No matter how you look at it, we’re paying way above the odds for a service that seems to be getting worse with every passing day.

I cannot emphasise enough how important having a fit-for-purpose railway system is for a healthy and growing economy. Affordable and effective public transport networks increase productivity, allow people to look for jobs in a wider area and act as catalysts for further public and private investment. Furthermore, every person who takes a train instead of going on the road in a car supports the environment and the economy by reducing congestion and greenhouse gas emissions. In the North, where we have several cities that are geographically close but hard to get between due to poor transport infrastructure, the case for looking again at public transport becomes even stronger. Every train that is delayed, or cancelled, or overcrowded, or too expensive is not just an inconvenience for passengers, it is a blow to the very heart of the economy we want to build in the North of England.

Is it really such a surprise that many believe that drastic action is now needed? Polls conducted at the start of this year showed that 78% of Labour voters, 60% of Lib Dems, 70% of UKIP and 42% of Conservatives were in favour of renationalising our railways. I challenge you to find a similar consensus on any hot-button issue in politics today. The government will argue that the public sector wouldn’t be able to take on the job, but across Europe publically-run companies such as Deutsche Bahn, Nederlanse Spoorwegan and Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français operate profitable and well-managed railway networks. Even here in Britain, the vast improvement in public transport in London has been down to a multi-billion pound investment programme funded by the government and carried out by publically- owned Transport for London.

These are the examples we should follow, not our failed privatised franchising system. As part of the devolution deals we have signed with the government Transport for the North is due to be given full legal status next year. When it is fully set up, this body will be responsible for budgets, tickets and bus services across the North. Surely then it’s not a giant leap for them to run our railway services as well, working with public and private sector partners as they see fit? These devolved responsibilities must be backed up by devolved funding as well, perhaps through taking forward Tony Lloyd’s suggested policy of allowing the estimated £1.1 billion of fuel duty revenue raised in Greater Manchester to be spent in Greater Manchester by Greater Manchester. Devolution, making decisions locally and reinvesting profits locally, may be the solution we need to create a railway system that will help turn the Northern Powerhouse from words on paper to a reality on the ground.

Putting the Public Back in Public Transport

Friday, June 17th, 2016

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As part of our drive to make Tameside a greener, more connected borough I take a particular interest in how we can make public transport as cheap and effective an option for residents as possible. That might seem like a strange thing to say in a car dominated country like the UK, but I think that the reasons speak for themselves. Public transport is better for the environment, connects people to work, enables young people to access education and training and tackles social isolation.

What’s more, it’s predicted that traffic levels will increase by up to 55% by 2040, a jump that may lead to gridlocked roads and increased difficulty for people accessing jobs and services if we don’t prepare for it now. Investing in and expanding public transport is one of the best ways to meet this future challenge head-on. Which is why it’s a real concern that bus use in the UK outside London has halved since the industry was deregulated in the 1980s, falling from 2 billion to 1 billion a year.

It’s clear that something has to be done. That’s why I welcomed the Bus Services Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech last month, which would allow devolved authorities with an elected mayor, such as Greater Manchester, to commission bus services for their own area. This isn’t exactly a new thing – London has been allowed to do it for decades – but it’s a positive step nonetheless. It also opens the door to more ambitious plans like smart ticketing systems, a true Oyster card for the North.

Unfortunately, like most government legislation these days, the Bus Services Bill has a sting in the tail. Devolved authorities will be specifically banned from setting up bus companies to run their own services. If publicly-owned bus companies were proven to be worse than their private sector counterparts then that would be fair enough, but the evidence from existing public bus companies (which will still be allowed to run) says otherwise. Reading Buses was Operator of the Year in 2015. Nottingham City Transport has the best passenger satisfaction rating of any provider. Lothian Buses, the largest public bus operator in the UK, returned a profit of £5.5 million to the public sector for reinvestment last year alone. Public bus companies can be successful, and they deserve to be allowed to compete on a level playing field. Anything else is putting ideology over what works.

In Tameside we will continue to work with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and Transport for Greater Manchester to secure the future of public transport in the borough. Work on the new Tameside Interchange (Ashton-under-Lyne), a modern transport hub that will link up both buses and trams, is scheduled to begin at the end of the year. We’re also continuing to explore the possibilities offered by expansion of the Metrolink, the electrification of the Manchester-Leeds railway, and bringing old railway routes back into use.

For our residents and for the environment, Tameside does clean. Tameside does green. Tameside does public transport.

Victory for #NorthernPowercut campaign

Tuesday, October 6th, 2015

Back in June Council leaders across the region were disappointed by the Government’s decision to ‘pause’ the electrification of the Trans-Pennine rail link.

Prior to the general election the Chancellor George Osborne made much of his plans to create a ‘Northern Powerhouse’. The idea of re-balancing the economy away from the South-East is a sound one and something that Northern Council leaders like me have long argued for. The opportunity to improve transport links across the North and deliver solid economic growth for our region was something that, I believe, we needed to grab with both hands.

However, immediately following the general election, a key part of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ programme – the electrification of the Trans-Pennine rail link – was shelved.

To say that we felt let down would be an understatement. The economic benefits to Tameside of improving rail links over the Pennines had been taken away just a matter of weeks after they had been promised.

That’s why Council Leaders across the region refused to let this U-turn go. We got together and discussed how we could get the government to deliver on their election pledge. Councillors agreed to bring forward and debate a motion at their meetings of full Council to pile pressure on the government to give us the railway improvements they promised.

Tameside, Manchester, Stockport and Oldham Council’s, working with the Manchester Evening News’ #NorthernPowercut campaign, all debated and passed motions calling on the government to reverse the cancellation of the electrification works. In the end, it appears that the pressure of hundreds of angry northern Councillors and members of the public was too much, and the government has reinstated the plans.

Electrification of the Trans-Pennine route will provide capacity for six fast trains per hour between Manchester and York via Leeds. Journey time will also be reduced by up to 15 minutes.

The benefits to the economy of having a fast, frequent and reliable link connecting the major northern cities will run in to the billions. Here in Tameside we are determined to capitalise on our location on the rail line and ensure that the whole of Tameside feels the benefit of having the mainline Stalybridge railway station within the boundaries of our Borough.

The actions of Tameside, and other Council’s across the region on this issue show that, despite the difficult times Local Government exists in today, we can still punch above our weight and hold the government to account.

Trouble Down the Track: The Future of Transport in Greater Manchester

Tuesday, July 7th, 2015

It is fair to say that since it first opened to passengers on 6th April 1992 the Metrolink has become as much of a Manchester icon as City and United, Oasis and Coronation Street. It has grown to become the largest light rail network in the UK, covering almost 60 miles of tracks, serving 92 stops and taking on over 30 million passengers a year. From the centre of Manchester travellers can reach Altrincham and Ashton, Bury and East Didsbury, Eccles and Rochdale, MediaCityUK and Manchester Airport.

Unfortunately, if you want to travel from Ashton to Rochdale, Oldham to Stockport or Bury to Eccles, you’re still out of luck. Although Metrolink is undeniably effective in getting people in and out of Manchester city centre; road and, to a lesser degree, rail remain the only options when travelling between the suburbs and outskirts.

Fortunately, some of the work we need to do to move things forward is already taking place. In 2017 all eyes will be on Sheffield and Rotherham as they launch their prototype tram-train network. If successful, the tram-train model, which uses flexible vehicles that can run on both light tram tracks and rail networks, could provide a model to efficiently expand the Metrolink service and link it up with regional railway services. Properly implemented, a tram-train network will improve journey times and reduce congestion across all of Greater Manchester for a significantly reduced capital cost in infrastructure and rolling stock. Existing railway and Metrolink lines could be combined to link up into a “tramway M60”, a Circle Line for Greater Manchester, linking up Ashton, Stockport, Altrincham, Eccles, Rochdale and many more of Greater Manchester’s towns. It would also allow currently underutilised railway lines to play a full and valuable role in our transport solution.

Over the next few years I will be lobbying to ensure that these proposals are pursued as quickly and ambitiously as possible. This is a plan that deserves to succeed.

But if it is to succeed then it will require far more commitment to Northern transport investment than the Tories have displayed to date. The announced suspension of electrification works to the Transpennine railway line is nothing short of a slap in the face to the entire North of England. Almost as if to add insult to injury, the Secretary of State for Transport has also announced that yet more London-centric railway work will remain the top priority. The £14.5 billion of capital expenditure allocated to Crossrail alone is nine times more than what is earmarked for all the rail projects in the North West, North East and Yorkshire put together.

If the Tories are sincere about creating their “Northern Powerhouse” then serious investment in quicker and better railway connections between the great cities of the North is an absolutely indispensable step towards achieving it.

In partnership with Northern council leaders and MPs from all the political parties I strongly urge that electrification of the Transpennine line is recommenced and feasibility studies of a Metrolink Circle Line are undertaken as immediate priorities. These are not things that can be put on the back burner; we simply cannot be expected to have a Champions League economy if we are forced to continue with Sunday League transport infrastructure.

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