Interviews

14.12.15

TfN aims to take the burden off under-pressure councils

Source: PSE Dec/Jan 16

David Brown, the recently appointed chief executive of Transport for the North, explains why it is important the north speaks with a single, clear voice. He was talking to PSE’s David Stevenson.

Transport for the North (TfN) can help take the burden off local authorities when seeking better transport deals and devolution, PSE has been told.

David Brown, the former Merseytravel boss who was recently appointed chief executive of TfN, said the organisation isn’t there to duplicate work being done elsewhere or remove responsibilities from other people. 

“But it is about making the northern case at the strategic level, which should take the burden off individual authorities having to do that when they are suffering from constantly reduced budgets,” he said. 

Discussing recent devolution developments, such as Sheffield City Region’s £900m deal, which will see a metro-mayor overseeing the region’s transport budget, Brown said that he sees these deals as the first step in a long journey. This point is reiterated by the LGA’s Mark Lloyd on pages 22-23 and Lord Kerslake on pages 30-31. 

“Where those devolution deals are taking place at a city-region level, there is an opportunity for us to make the case for devolution of powers from government to TfN at that strategic level,” he told us. 

Devolution in action 

Brown added that it was great news that Rail North would be jointly managing the new Northern and TransPennine Express (TPE) franchises with the DfT from April. This will be done from Leeds, not London. 

“It is real devolution in action,” he said. “I also think it is the first time the whole of the north has got an agreed set of priorities, with a good evidence base and then collectively made the case for growing and investing in the railway, rather than a cost reduction railway.” 

He added that Rail North, which is made up of 29 councils with transport authority functions from across the north of England, has also been talking about the economic asset of trains and improved connectivity – rather than talking about trains for the sake of trains. 

“It is the first time the north has spoken with that one clear script,” he said. “These franchises will be managed from Leeds by a joint team from April, so it is real devolution. There is a lot of talk about devolution but that is a task currently done by central government done in London, that will now been done by the north with the Department [for Transport] from Leeds.” 

Rail North’s future 

TfN, which has a wider membership and remit than Rail North, as it works with local enterprise partnerships, Highways England, Network Rail, HS2 Ltd, national agencies and the government, does have future plans for Rail North. Brown noted that after TfN becomes a statutory body in 2017 there is an aim to incorporate Rail North as the organisation’s franchise arm. 

“Part of our remit, therefore, will hopefully include managing the franchises and in the future, maybe, letting those franchises. So Rail North will become part of TfN and become our franchising part of our organisation.” 

He told PSE it makes sense as the northern membership is still being represented, there is a governance model already in place, and there is a political element to the organisation. 

“It isn’t about getting rid of something and creating something new, it will be about bringing Rail North together with TfN,” said Brown. 

He added that part of the movement to a statutory body is seeing what TfN can do that the DfT currently does, and “adding value to the combined authorities”. 

Brown stated that if there are things “that the DfT currently do, around strategic transport planning and influencing national programmes, then I think they should be sitting at the TfN level”. 

Part of that will depend on what is built into the TfN’s order. “So, what is it that we think TfN should be doing, getting our members happy with that and then getting the Department to let us push through that order,” said Brown. 

Ongoing work 

TfN recently released its ‘The Northern Transport Strategy: Autumn Report’, a progress update showing what priorities TfN has been setting for transforming rail in the north and how it plans to transform the strategic road network, including a possible Trans-Pennine road tunnel. 

Brown said that Highways England has produced its interim study into the feasibility of a Trans-Pennine tunnel, which said the case needed further examination. 

“They will now be making the case to get further funding to develop those concepts further,” he said. 

“But it is also about looking at things like the M62 and M60 to make sure the traffic which is still there can run smoothly. 

“The tunnel is the eye-catching thing, I guess, but it is about improving those connections, Trans-Pennine in particular, by better use of the existing system as well as adding new infrastructure.” 

He added that there has also been a shift in how transport and connectivity is being viewed, as it is “now see as an economic imperative”. 

Brown, who was head of South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive before his move to Merseytravel and latterly TfN, noted that transport is one of the core building blocks, alongside innovation and skills, needed to create a vibrant economy. 

“It is also the most tangible thing. You can see what you are doing to improve that,” he said. “People do see that if they can argue, on a northern level, for those strategic improvements we are a much more powerful than doing it individually.” 

TfN, working with the Department for Transport, will now produce an implementation plan by Budget 2016 for the roll-out of its vision over this Parliament and beyond.

New and improved rail 

Discussing the rail element of TfN’s work, Brown added that the aim is to get a set of concepts established quickly for improving west to east connectivity and how it can complement high-speed rail. 

Recently HS2 Ltd chair Sir David Higgins, when publishing his ‘Yorkshire Hub’ report, said a “consensus” has grown in favour of hub stations in Leeds city centre as well as at Toton in the east Midlands. 

PSE asked Brown how important it is for HS2 to integrate with current transport networks, especially with city centre stations. He said: “Clearly where the west-east rail connectivity interfaces at Sheffield, Manchester and Leeds will be critical to its [HS2’s] success. 

“That is part of the work programme on rail at the moment, about how does the potential for Northern Powerhouse Rail interface at high-speed rail stations. 

“They [HS2 Ltd] clearly have a plan. Our plans are aimed at being complementary. Making sure you get that west to east connectivity as well as the north-south.” 

He also stated that it is essential rail electrification projects, like TransPennine, which is now due to be done by 2023, are completed on time. 

“The franchise announcements – Northern and TPE – give us a lot more capacity in the next seven to nine years by running newer trains and more trains,” said Brown. 

“But you get to the point where you need two things, really. One is a continuous improvement programme for the existing network so further electrification and additional capacity. 

“And then, I believe, TfN will be arguing for new infrastructure because if you are really going to transform the journey time between the key cities, you need new infrastructure for doing that – not just constantly tweaking what are quite old and constrained systems.”

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