Colin Speakman: Devolution key to transport’s brighter future

ALREADY the airwaves and the pages of the Press are full of glittering promises from politicians anxious for our votes in May.

Transport, too often a Cinderella in our region, is suddenly in the news ,and with good reason. Spending per head on transport in Yorkshire in 2012/3 was a miserly £246 per head compared with £545 for prosperous London.

There’s some urgent catching up to do.

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Rail improvements are high on the wishlist. Among promises for the “Northern Powerhouse” and “Rail North” are replacement of 30-year-old crowded, uncomfortable Pacer trains on commuter and rural lines, electrification of the major TransPennine rail route between York, Leeds and Manchester, the busy Calder Valley line through Bradford and Halifax, and between York, Harrogate and Leeds.

Projects now in the public eye include rebuilding “the missing link” between Skipton and Colne, and a new rail or tram link to Leeds Bradford Airport and perhaps a new road link.

New funds will fill potholes in the region’s roads, but schemes for widening trunk roads and motorways may only ensure city- centre traffic jams and parking demand grow.

Looking behind the vote- grabbing headlines the position isn’t quite as rosy. As no UK manufacturer is currently building new diesel multiple unit trains, old Pacer trains will be around for some years to come, given current huge shortages of rolling stock as passenger numbers soar.

DfT’s solution to overcrowded trains is to price passengers off by banning off-peak day tickets on late-afternoon Northern trains.

This makes rail travel increasingly unaffordable for many people, damaging the economy. Yet anyone over 60 living in Greater London now enjoys unlimited free travel on all buses, Underground, trams and trains after 09.30 on weekdays and all day at weekends.

Top of the 2015 wishlist must be devolution of decision making on transport investment priorities and fares away from Whitehall to elected representatives in our region.

Things may begin to change in 2015 when the two former PTEs, Metro and Travel South Yorkshire, now part of the new Combined Authorities of West Yorkshire and Sheffield City Region, are more closely integrated with their Local Enterprise Partnerships to create new powerful regional bodies with significant money from the Government to invest in transport infrastructure and service development.

Will this be enough to fill perhaps the most glaring gap in provision in the Leeds area, the lack of a modern rapid transport system? Leeds is now the biggest metropolitan centre in Western Europe without any kind of modern light rapid transit system, such as Supertram or an underground.

Even the modest Leeds trolley bus scheme seems to have hit the buffers, leaving double-deck buses travelling at walking pace through ever worsening traffic jams and air pollution.

One wish for 2015 would be the revival of plans to allow Leeds to match Sheffield, Manchester or Nottingham with a 21st century LRT or Supertram system on traffic-free reservations.

Regional funding is also desperately needed for the most heavily used but least well funded transport mode, the bus. Owing to motor lobby pressure, our town and cities are prioritised for highly polluting and congesting private cars, rather than the kind of clean, green electric buses, manufactured in Yorkshire and now planned for York and maybe other cities soon.

However, because of cuts in Government support for buses, many rural bus network services are seriously threatened.

I believe 2015 could see a “Beeching of the Buses” in Yorkshire that will damage communities. North Yorkshire County Council’s current proposals to refuse Senior Pass payments for the highly successful DalesBus and MoorsBus networks, will prevent many older people on low incomes from visiting the Yorkshire Dales or North York Moors National Parks.

With further cuts in the pipeline, by 2016 the Dales and Moors could lose almost all scheduled bus services, leading to increased car dependency, economic and social isolation and outmigration of younger and older people.

Yet relatively modest sums of money, compared with the cost of new road or rail links, are required to support a high quality, integrated, and cost effective rural bus network.

What is urgently needed in 2015 is for the new Combined Authorities to assume control of cross boundary bus services into their cash-starved rural hinterland.

This would make it possible for young people living in areas like the Dales to travel into the cities for work, education and shopping, and for city dwellers to enjoy the great National Parks.

Access to these areas depends on networks of accessible, affordable public transport being available to all.

That’s perhaps why we so urgently need a Regional Transport Authority for Yorkshire, that will put the needs of the people first.

• Colin Speakman is chairman of the Campaign for Better Transport’s North and West Yorkshire Group.