Leeds Trolleybus, new Sheffield to Manchester road and Northern Oyster Card could finally bring Powerhouse idea to life: Sir Andrew Cook

REMEMBER the Northern Powerhouse? Ask a city-centre passer-by in Leeds, Manchester or Sheffield and the response, if not just a look of blank incomprehension, will most likely be “What on earth was that?”

The Woodhead Pass between Sheffield and Manchester.
The Woodhead Pass between Sheffield and Manchester.

Indeed, for the typical northerner, if it is recognised at all, it is regarded as nothing more than a political chimera: a pair of buzz words dreamed up by the former Chancellor George Osborne, supposedly to indicate an intention to weld the commercial and industrial ‘powerhouses’ of Yorkshire and Lancashire into some kind of 21st century technological megalopolis – a rival to Germany’s Ruhrgebiet or China’s Hong Kong-Shenzen-Guangzchou (Canton, in old-speak).

But it needs more than words to create a megalopolis, and first and foremost is good transport. The German Ruhr, comprising the major cities of Dusseldorf, Duisburg, Essen and Dortmund, interspersed with important towns such as Wuppertal and Muhlheim, is criss-crossed by a dense network of electrified railways and motorways.

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The major airport is Dusseldorf, served by most long-distance express trains as well as the intensive S-bahn local train system. There are important satellite airports at Cologne and Dortmund. Travel to, from and within the Ruhr is seamless and easy. It functions efficiently as a vast, single megalopolis, occupying an area of some 5,000 square miles.

An artist's impression of a Leeds Trolleybus in 2016.

Contrast this with the Northern Powerhouse. A similar area, with similar populations and a similar mix of large cities interspersed with important towns, but what of the transport links?

Short, slow, over-crowded and uncomfortable diesel trains; one major airport – Manchester – poorly served by rail and with no direct trains to London. Leeds airport tucked away in a distant suburb, with few international connections. Sheffield airport closed.

And the roads? Leave aside for a moment the often choked M62 and M1 and focus on Sheffield to Manchester, where the appalling A628/A616 over Woodhead, a major trunk route, would be a disgrace to any second or third world country.

What is planned to address this? The answer is almost nothing. Electrification schemes for the suburban and trans-Pennine rail routes have been ignored or abandoned. ‘Touch and go’ ticketing systems, so successful with London’s Oystercard on the Underground and buses, have been shelved.

Plans for a new terminal at Leeds Bradford Airport have been put on hold by the Government and apart from some talk about a bus link from ‘nearby’ train stations, the nearest of which is three miles distant, nothing is planned to make it easier to reach. Sheffield remains a backwater, reinforced by HS2’s intended route missing it out altogether.

Instead, in the true traditions of British public administration, a National Infrastructure Commission has been appointed to investigate and report. I would suggest a week riding the trains and buses of urban Yorkshire and Lancashire would give far more insight into the desperately unsatisfactory situation than the deliberations of a commission ever could.

What does the commission know about the slow, dirty and uncomfortable ‘buses on rails’ trundling painfully around the counties. How many of the commission members have tried to fight their way aboard a packed peak-hour train from Leeds or Sheffield to Manchester?

Have they any idea of the discomfort felt by a Sheffield businessman attempting to explain to his German visitors why the car crawl across the Woodhead moors is taking twice as long as their flight from Dusseldorf?

And where are the Chambers of Commerce in this? Patiently mouthing mild criticisms while waiting for a largely useless HS2?

I have repeatedly proposed remedies for these regional transport deficiencies, in letters and articles these last 30 years, at best to nods of acknowledgement but mostly to blind eyes and deaf ears. Still, I persist. It is said that ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ and whether it is or isn’t, I have only my pen to make my points.

For much of my adult life I have tried to draw attention in letters and articles to the failings, nonsenses, inadequacies and injustices which affect Sheffield and Yorkshire manufacturers. Inadequate transport and communications, the high cost of energy, the unfairness of EU competition and, more recently, the economic hazards of leaving the important Single European Market are all essential subjects for the British industrialist.

Will there ever be a decent road from Sheffield to Manchester, or a reliable carbon-neutral electricity generating network, or a comfortable and frequent regional train service? Possibly, one day, and I hope to live to see it.

Irrespective, occasionally I may have regretted writing, but I have almost always regretted remaining silent.

So, my message to this Government, whose Parliamentary majority it owes to those former ‘red wall’ voters in the Powerhouse territory who decided to try ‘blue’ for once, is as Churchill would say “Action this day!”

HS2 is of little use to the Yorkshire commuter, and in any case it’s 10 years in the future. Stop talking, and start doing. Electrify the regional network. Build a simple, fast Woodhead motor road – an expressway over the moor, ignoring the nonsense about a 30-mile tunnel. Let’s have a Leeds trolleybus system and a ‘Go Anywhere’ Northern Oystercard. There is no time to lose!

The next election is in under four years, and if your new friends from the old red wall don’t see some results, you’ll be out on your ear.

Sir Andrew Cook is a Yorkshire industrialist. The Collected Writings of Andrew Cook compiled by Bernard Ginns is out now and available from William Cook Publishing Ltd via [email protected]

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