Transport for the North reveals 12 month route map

 Andy Walker spoke to TfN’s chief executive David Brown as the organisation prepares to release its latest strategy report

David Brown is a man with a plan a transport plan for the Norththat will, for the first time, give the industry some long-term certainty, ending the stop-start approach that has blighted previous attempts to organise transport infrastructure development.

Today TfN ( March 9) issued an update on its strategy, first launched last October which sets put some key decisions it hopes to take by the end of the year. It confirms Transport for the North is to determine by then whether the Northern Powerhouse will feature a Transpennine Tunnel linking Manchester to Sheffield, reducing the drive time by 30 minutes from the current average of 85 minutes. 

It also confirmed that its project dubbed ‘Northern Powerhouse Rail’  involving the construction of new lines to link cities including Sheffield and Manchester is at the centre of the plans, unveiled by the Department for Transport yesterday.In its report, TfN said that projects would be firmed up by the end of the year, with design and development starting by 2017. 

The plans also include “substantial upgrade” work on lines between cities such as Leeds and Newcastle and Leeds and Hull.

The annual report is a timely release, coming as it does at around the same time as George Osborne’s latest Budget and two reports from the National Infrastructure Commission. As TfN chief executive,Brown will take a leading role in the development of the future blueprint for TfN as it builds towards statutory status from 2017 onwards.

Sitting in his offices in Manchester’s Piccadilly, the former Merseyside Travel CEO exudes the calm that will be needed to navigate red tape and regional rivalries to pull off a fully fledged devolved transport entity for the North.

If he could get there overnight, what would it be like, one wonders?

Brown has no hesitation in setting out the three things he’d do to improve transport in the region. “We need a brand-new rail system that connects Liverpool in the west across to Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and then onto Newcastle and Hull. That needs to be a substantially new line, because then you get significant benefits for passengers and freight, and you minimise the disruption.

“Then we need a clear plan to manage the motorway system to not just cater for the growth that is happening but to encourage people to change their behaviours and travel by public transport.

“The third thing is having a clear plan for freight, because at the moment it’s a bit of a patch-and-mend. Having a clear plan which allows us to improve access to ports and airports in particular is really important.”

So tell us about the route map?

Brown may have a final destination in mind, but today the conversation is very much about the route map and what’s in the latest TfN report. “It says there are options for dramatic improvements to road connectivity from east to west, looking at the potential for a trans-Pennine tunnel and trans-Pennine improvements around the A66 and A69 and the rest ofthe motorway system. There’s an update on Northern Powerhouse Rail, the trans-Pennine upgrade, smart ticketing and access to ports and airports,” he says.

What are the key things TfN is demonstrating with the new strategy?

There are three things TfN wants to show with its new strategy. “The first is to demonstrate progress. The second is to show that we are starting to get a clear set of priorities, and the third is to say, ‘Here is the programme of work that we are going to be doing.’

We’ll be narrowing down the options on potential schemes, so on the trans-Pennine tunnel we have moved from five to three, and on Northern Powerhouse Rail we’ll have two or three options rather than five or six.”

And what are the main challenges?

So far so good, but what are the main challenges? Just setting the organisation up in the first place, trying to get people in and trying to work with all the city regions is a challenge in itself, says Brown.

The creation of the statutory body is particularly important, because it will give TfN the power to do some of the things now done by central government, such as commissioning rail and roads.

“That’s a challenge, because I have to ensure that we reflect the views of the North and then negotiate that with central government as well.”

Brown is clearly concerned about how long all this might take. A drawn-out statutory process and full devolution is a worry, he says, as is delay in drawing down the money that has been made available for TfN from central government – £10m a year for the remainder of this Parliament. “We need to go through a process, but we don’t want it to take too long,” he says.

“This is about devolution. We want to get on and deliver the things that are important to the North. We just need to make it happen. We don’t want an assault course of an approval process. “We need that long-term plan so that contractors and private sector can gear up to match that. We are trying to give the industry some longer-term certainty, with a programme of schemes for which we can identify medium to long-term funding. We want contractors to be able to plan for the longer term, to align that with the skills agenda and make sure that the people we work with have the right workforce and that they’re bringing through apprentices.”

And what’s likely to happen in the next year? 

In the next year Brown says he expects TfN to have a clearer set of priorities about routes and preferred options, alongside existing programmes around smart motorways and Network Rail improvements.

“Quite a lot of the key developments will be in the mid-2020s, but there is a lot you can do now,” he says. “There’s a load you can do on the motorway network and the rail network to improve journey times and that will be done between now and 2022, while we develop the bigger-ticket items. 

“What you wouldn’t want to do is put all your eggs in a trans-Pennine tunnel basket when businesses need to move between Sheffield and Manchester now and not wait until 2022.”

Why is Northern decision making important?

Brown says it is important that decisions are being made in the North. “On rail, the new franchises are now being managed by a team based in Leeds, not Whitehall, so that’s devolution actually occurring.

That’s being done in the North by northern people. It’s that logic we are trying to apply in TfN – the North delivering for the North.”

And what about funding where is that coming from?

 “If you’re building any new infrastructure you’ve got to look at all options about getting foreign investment or other investment in.

The key question is, how do they get a return on that investment?

I’ve just come from a meeting with a Chinese company which is very keen on investing and doing the work, but how do they actually get a return if they fund the roads and railways? 

I think there is an issue for central government to work on there,” Brown says

Where are you looking for inspiration?.

Brown is keen to learn lessons internationally. “Germany and France, where their infrastructure is far better than here and the cities are connected by better journey times and better frequencies, shows what can be done,” he says.

From a devolution perspective Brown cites approvingly the example of the Scottish government and Transport for Scotland. “They have determined what they will spend the money on that suits their objectives, which probably aren’t central government objectives. They have got the mandate, the funding and they are getting on and doing it.”

Delivery is not far off So what should we expect at the end of TfN’s first five years?

 “We will have produced a plan. We’ll have secured the funding for smart ticketing and delivered a substantial part of that across the North, we’ll have produced the plan for the rail system upgrade and we’ll be halfway through delivering that and the same on the motorways, and we’ll know what we are doing on the big schemes,” says Brown.

“By December 2017 TfN and Network Rail will have produced a firm plan about what our proposals are, and between 2017 and 2022 we’ll be getting into delivery mode. In transport terms that’s really not that far away.”

Indeed it isn’t. It seems that, as far as transport infrastructure in the North is concerned, there will be much for the industry to get its teeth into over the next five years and beyond.

In Brown, the sector looks to have a keen advocate for what it can bring to the table as well as for the virtues of having a plan and sticking to it.