Rail expansion is the ‘only viable option’ to help UK cities thrive

Transport Knowledge Hub logo Published on: 9th August 2018 by Jonathan Bray.

The recent meltdown on the UK’s rail networks and the major disruption it caused was rightly met with criticism and condemnation from rail users, politicians and the media – who have been searching for answers as to how this could have happened.

And while timetabling and staffing issues have led to a miserable experience for passengers, affected areas and the rail industry, they have served to highlight just how important rail is to our cities. If one good has come out of this crisis, it’s the start of a public conversation and some bigger thinking about what kind of rail cities we will need for the future – and how best we can make them happen.

And that’s exactly what we explore in our latest report Rail Cities UK, which highlights how the fundamentals for urban rail remain very strong.

Here’s why: All cities want to become denser, more dynamic places which attract the best people to the growth sectors of the economy. In order to achieve this – as well as to improve air quality – cities are also reducing space for motorised traffic in favour of space for people. It’s very difficult to see how this can be achieved without expanding rail networks and their capacity.

What’s more, if housing need is to be met without creating more sprawl and traffic congestion, then again it’s rail that will be key – because it opens up former rail-connected brownfield industrial sites, it extends commuting range, plus, housing can be built above or around new or existing rail stations and interchanges.

In some ways there’s nothing new here. From Metroland to Docklands, successful cities have always grown with their rail networks. And to be fair, there is significant investment going into urban rail at present. Northern will get a lot better and both Merseyside and Tyne & Wear are getting a whole new fleet of trains for their urban rail networks.

However, much (but not all) of this investment is incremental, or replacing rolling stock on its last legs. It stops short of the wider vision for the rail cities that we need.

What would that look like in practice? There comes a point when the biggest cities need more cross-city routes, because running trains in and out of edge-of-centre termini can’t cope with the numbers. That explains the push for Crossrail 2 in London, but also the need for more cross-city capacity in cities like Birmingham and Manchester.

Tram-train technology can also help – allowing the lucky commuter that benefits to get on board at their local station and get off right outside their city centre office on main street in the city centre, rather than piling out at a Victorian railway terminal on the edge of that city centre.

Tram-trains aren’t the only tech fix available. Battery packs can extend the range of existing electric trains deeper into the “look ma, no wires” hinterlands, as well as allow trams to glide through city centres without the expensive clutter of overhead wires.

More mundane but equally useful work to increase capacity through signalling, station, track and junction work offers the opportunity to move to turn-up-and-go frequency networks with greater capacity and more reliability – networks that start to emulate the best of what comparable German rail cities already enjoy…. interlocking networks of long distance, regional express, regional, S-bahn, U-bahn, trams and buses, all under common ticketing.

In talking about Germany and common ticketing, we return to the debate on whether some fundamental change is needed on how urban rail networks are provided. Obviously there is a bigger national discussion going on about whether the current structure is just too layered, with too many costly interfaces and too fractured a chain of command. And in addition another, on whether the railway should be publicly or privately owned and operated.

But it’s heartening to see the growing recognition that – regardless of how these debates are resolved – more devolution for urban and regional services should be part of any solution. That’s not only because fully devolved services have been out-performing comparators both operationally and in passenger satisfaction, it’s because local control rather than remote control from Whitehall will mean that the dots can be joined between rail and housing, between rail and the wider re-fashioning of city centres, and between rail and local communities (for example, through re-purposing stations as wider hubs for local community use, enterprises and housing). It will also allow for rail and the rest of local urban public transport networks to be part of one system, rather than be just on nodding terms as is all too often the case at present.

About the Author

This post was written by Jonathan Bray.