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The green next steps for the North with NPR’s Tim Wood

8 min

Ahead of Thursday’s On-Track Carbon Virtual Seminar, Tangent speaks to Transport for the North’s Tim Wood. We talk electrification greenifying the railways, flexi ticketing, and what a future change in franchising could mean for passengers

Despite the uncertainty over what the transport sector will look like, and what services it will provide in the coming years, there have certainly been some successes in recent months for the north’s railways. In July, the government’s landmark investment of almost £600m for electrification works along the Transpennine route is primed not just to ‘greenify’ the rail network, but also to unlock capacity, as well as improve freight transport on the network.

Alongside the funding announcement was the rather interesting reveal of what is dubbed the Northern Transport Acceleration Council, a new body dedicated to “accelerating vital infrastructure projects and better connecting communities across the north’s towns and cities.” The government believes the council, led by transport secretary Grant Shapps as Northern Powerhouse Minister, will give northern leaders a “direct line” to ministers to accelerate transport projects.

Pipeline investment

One of those northern leaders will be Tim Wood, director at Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR), the rail arm of Transport for the North (TfN). A pivotal time for his team, in September, NPR will deliver its paper to the TfN board for its Preferred Phasing Scenarios. Two months later, in November, NPR will deliver its Overall Preferred Network for NPR; and, on 10 March next year, NPR will deliver the long-awaited Strategic Outline Case to the government, fundamentally making the case for why the £39bn NPR network should be built. Just this week, Transport for the North set out initial plans for a £5bn Northern Infrastructure Pipeline (NIP), a 30-year investment plan of infrastructure projects to foster greener transport growth in the north.

Investment breeds innovation, the supply chain will work to provide solutions if it sees investment being made. They will not innovate in isolation

First, though, Tim highlighted how the £589m for the Transpennine Route Upgrade is a sample of how the country can bounce back from passenger decline with a more agile and greener rail network. “What that money allows that programme to do is to develop further full electrification, and also looking at the gauge clearance across the Pennines,” he told Tangent. “These pieces of infrastructure are really vital, in terms of greenifying the railways. What we want to see is mass decarbonisation, in getting rid of those old diesel trains, using electrification on the long-distance routes.

NPR Director Tim Wood speaking at Peloton’s Rail: North Bradford 2019

“But also not forgetting that we have bi-modes already running, we’re looking at hydrogen and battery-powered trains, but for the long-distance and heavy haul routes, electrification is absolutely the right way to go.”

Tim noted that while things are uncertain, public transport passenger figures “will be down.” When the country overcomes the pandemic, he adds, investment in the north’s dire and dated networks will still need to considered front-and-centre for the government. “These rail enhancements were badly needed prior to COVID-19, and will arguably be needed more, due to the kickstart it will give the economy of the north of England,” explained the rail boss.

“As a nation, this is an opportunity to build back a cleaner and greener transport network, and public transport and active travel at the centre. Investment breeds innovation, the supply chain will work to provide solutions if it sees investment being made. They will not innovate in isolation.”

Tim will be speaking at Peloton’s On-Track Carbon Reduction Virtual Seminar on 20 August at 3.00pm. Click here to register for free!

Smart ticketing – better late than never?

The aforementioned £5bn NIP investment plan proposed smart ticketing as one of the fundamental factors in which could stimulate economic recovery from the pandemic, a technology which the rail industry has tentatively dipped its toe into more recently. Northern, the recently nationalised rail operator, has launched a new ‘flexi’ ticket, allowing passengers travelling between Leeds and Harrogate to use ten unlimited travel days for the price of nine, which can be taken any time over the next six months.

Leeds Station c. Flickr

But is that really enough to entice anxious work-from-home passengers back onto the networks? Compared to systems in Germany, France, and even London, the north’s offering flexible transport offerings will need to be considerably beefed up in response to changing working practices in the ‘new normal’. “While the smart ticketing programme is not actually part of NPR, we’ve just brought on a new director, Jeremy Acklam, who has joined TfN. For us, we see smart ticketing as creating a contactless, seamless system, whereby you literally can tap-and-go as per the Oyster system on public transport in London.,” Tim said.

For us, we see smart ticketing as creating a contactless, seamless system, whereby you literally can tap-and-go

“I think what’s important is that we’ve already started to roll out smart ticketing. So, Northern, TransPennine and Merseyrail are already using smartcards delivered in partnership with TfN, you can see on the stations where you can purchase and validate your card – and I think, as northerners, we don’t want to be messing around with buying lots of different tickets for lots of different modes.” Tim noted this ticket system of “millions of different rates and combinations” stifles customers from utilising the rail networks which will need to become much more agile and responsive to looping in different modes of transport in the north’s cities and towns.

“So we’ve phased this in stages: that first rollout being across the North’s rail network, but then as later stages come on board, we’ll look to integrated with bus and tram, all-in-one integrated smart system that makes it far easier for people to understand,” he said.

Renationalisation and its impacts for the region

The government’s decision to take control over Northern Rail was, at the time, a widely-welcomed move from passengers, who criticised the operator’s poor service, having suffered years of delays, dated carriages, and cancellations on the region’s networks. However, more recently, plummeting incomes from a dearth in rail users – and the fares that come from them – has led to whispers that a handful of operators may need to come under national control for financial reasons, as private providers could fail to make ends meet.

Northern rail networks were crucial for transporting key workers during the peak of the pandemic c. Unsplash

“We know that the trains are nowhere near full – but at the end of the day, the statistics at the moment are saying that [the UK Government] is putting into the system around £2.3bn,” Tim explained. “As private companies, they probably wouldn’t be able to continue financing the franchise, because you’re not taking the level of fare box as people aren’t using the trains.

“It’s only right and proper that the government have stepped in to do what they’ve done. People call it a renationalisation of the railways – I think that is still to be fully determined.”

Regionally, Tim adds, positives can be taken – open access operators like First Hull Trains and Grand Central are “starting to look at” bringing services back. Yet, with the Rail Delivery Group’s forecast that the railways will reach only 90% of its pre-lockdown capacity in five years, it could be sooner rather than later that the government will need to step in to keep vital rail services afloat. “These are very difficult times as the moment – the picture is still emerging, and I think we wait to see what further outcomes happen as time goes on.”

Getting the next steps right

The cruciality of the next steps that the industry and budget-holders will take on infrastructure investments is not lost on Tim, or his team at NPR. The rail director argued the most important points for the north’s recovery will be to “get out and do early surveying works on Network Rail infrastructure,” as well as beginning to assess the design and construction of new stations at Barnsley and Rotherham on the Midlands Main Line.

To perform those works, however, NPR is continuing to call for a complete funding envelope out of the Comprehensive Spending Review in November. “That would allow us then to develop our Hybrid Bill for the Liverpool-Manchester-Leeds route, the new lines that are planned there. But also allowing us to go from Strategic Outline Case, to Outline Case, and then Full Business Case, to be able to get that spade in the ground in 2024/2025 as I’ve spoken about.”

The commitment to long-term funding, also highlighted in TfN’s £5bn recovery plan announced this week, will harness the integration of HS2 Phase 2b and the Transpennine Route Upgrade, and catalyse the NPR Business Case in a bid to boost jobs and productivity in the region that looks to bounce back from economic decline in the past five months. “That’s the integration bit – that money will allow us to start to really pull that together,” Tim explained.

“And then from there, we can give the people of the north a railway that they have deserved for decades, and that growth in their own economic status and placemaking to make sure that the north of England blossoms out of this awful pandemic that we’re in at the moment. Transport opens up those opportunities.”

The Northern construction sector bounces back with Emma Antrobus, Institution of Civil Engineers