Northern Transport Summit

Paul Bell discusses his insight into the Northern Transport Summit in Manchester, taking a seat on the Future Transport Panel to talk about Northern Arc.

My day started with a 5:00 alarm call to catch the 5:58 Trans Pennine Express from Darlington.  Having experienced lengthy delays in both directions on my travels to Manchester in recent weeks, I considered the 5:58 was the safest bet for an 8:30 conference start – by comparison a Tees Valley to Manchester hyperloop journey would take a mere 16 minutes.

A small but passionate demonstration welcomed our arrival to the Summit, the focus of the protest being towards Chris Grayling and the debacle of the May Northern Rail timetable.  Perhaps it was the promise of a noisy RMT welcome, or possibly the importance of a parliamentary vote on the Heathrow Expansion, that persuaded the Secretary of State for Transport to cancel his participation and remain in London.

Chris Grayling’s no show certainly gave grist to the mills of Mayors Rotheram and Burnham who revelled in using this as another example of how the north is overlooked in favour of the south, perhaps not recognising the importance of Heathrow expansion to the UK and the great opportunities the project can bring for businesses across regions.  In any case, enough negativity to apparently dissuade one potential inward investor to the north according to the Slido conference messaging.

Inevitably much of the Summit’s focus was on the north west, with a slight nod towards the Yorkshire city regions of Leeds and Sheffield and a vaguer recognition that north east England forms an important part of the richness of the Northern Powerhouse community.  Mayor Rotheram and Burnham spoke of the importance of Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) as did the opening keynote from Barry White, chief executive of Transport for the North (TfN).

The panel discussion at the Northern Transport Summit
The panel discussion at the Northern Transport Summit

Barry White introduced TfN’s Strategic Transport Plan as much an economic plan as a transport plan – an excellent approach fully endorsed and at the root of the Northern Arc proposition.  Where TfN and Northern Arc currently differ is the level of ambition and the recognition that a strategic plan for 2050 must embrace emerging transport technologies.

Barry White emphasised how critical NPR is for the north and how the TfN team were moving at breakneck speed towards its development.  Tim Wood, NPR director for TfN talked of how he was oiling the cogs of NPR.

Unfortunate terminology from both perhaps.

NPR aims to reduce the journey times from Liverpool to Manchester to 20 minutes and Manchester to Leeds to 30 minutes – not exactly breakneck for distances of 35 and 40 miles respectively, and certainly not transformational.  As for the onward journeys beyond Leeds, the benefits to north east England will always be marginal without extensive remodelling of the meandering alignment of the rail corridor from Darlington to Newcastle.

Rather than oiling the cogs it would be great to encourage the TfN team to take some time and consider what the alternatives to cogs might be.  What the north needs is a truly transformational approach to connectivity.  As a region with a heritage in pioneering engineering and with a present and future in digital and scientific innovation we should be positioning ourselves at the forefront of the next generation of transport technology.

If we were to start with a clean sheet of paper and map the connectivity needs to commerce and industry today would a journey from Leeds to Newcastle go via York, Darlington and Durham or direct to Teesside, before linking in Wearside and Newcastle?  What are the key connections for Hull and the Humber ports?

Taking the principles of NPR and applying the potential of emerging technologies we could connect Glasgow and Edinburgh into a broader, more inclusive Northern Powerhouse, bringing the north east firmly into that agglomeration.  Transforming journey times to the point where travel between Glasgow and Liverpool, via Edinburgh, Newcastle, Tees Valley, Leeds and Manchester is reduced to less time than it takes to travel the Central Line in London, transforming journey times that would enable a connection between Manchester and Newcastle airport terminals – equal to an average transit between terminals 2 and 5 at Heathrow.  Extending Northern Arc to Hull and Aberdeen would connect all the major northern UK ports on both seaboards, transforming on shore distribution of freight.

The Northern Arc route
The Northern Arc route

Maybe if we dared to be more ambitious, really push the boundaries, position ourselves at the forefront of technology and in so doing attract entrepreneurial private investment as did the celebrated forefathers of the north then perhaps we would demand the enthusiastic attention of central government.

On 3 July I was delighted to be the guest of HYPED who unveiled their second generation prototype hyperloop pod at The Museum of Scotland before flying out for testing in the Space X trials in California.

The HYPED team
The HYPED team

On their return, Ryder Architecture will be welcoming the prototype to the Horse to Hyperloop exhibition in our Newcastle office as part of the Great Exhibition of the North’s Innovation Trail.  HYPED are an inspirational student start up collective coming out of the Universities of Edinburgh and Herriot Watt, demonstrating exactly the passion and innovation that will drive our wider region forward.

We have the skills and the vision.  If the need is to have a single voice then let’s make this a voice of the future not the past.