An audacious Manchester transport strategy you can believe in

Manchester Airport Group’s bid for Stansted Airport is yet another example of how the city region leadership is challenging orthodox practice, and applying imaginative and strategic thinking to regional challenges. The next one will be an audacious bid for the regional rail franchises.

Rail franchising is a mess. The usage of rail services is often held as a success, but the customer satisfaction is rating will be poor.

Call it a gut feeling, but the train operating companies don’t strike me as happy places to work. I see too many miserable ticket inspectors and grumpy drivers for whom the general public are an inconvenience.

Notionally, these are private companies, run for profit and in a competitive environment. In reality they are heavily subsidized and tightly regulated.

And yet a major change is now on the cards. Work is already underway for the a consortium of metropolitan authorities in the North to form a new company to run the rail franchises currently controlled by Transpennine and by Northern Rail. The leadership for the project, as mapped out in a report submitted to the Combined Authority board last year, is Manchester.

It may strike many of us in the private sector as odd, that in an era of austerity and cuts that the councils are still able to operate in such a bold and creative way. It also shows how important transport is to the strategic development of the city region - and doesn’t always have to include an unpopular congestion charge. 

There will be risks – for a start they may not win. But as the report stated the upsides are massive and the flexibility offered to a body whose objectives are strategic, rather than simply running it for a subsidised profit are clear.

“Upfront capital investment may be necessary to find ways of delivering long‐run improvements in the efficiency of local services. Examples of such investments might include electrification, smartcard, turn‐around facilities and potentially some tram train conversions. As part of the GMCA city deal central government has committed to define a list of capital investments to reduce the cost base of the railway in the North of England.”

We are once again reminded of how fortunate we are in Greater Manchester to have a local leadership with vision and ambition. As Sir Howard Bernstein said in a national newspaper last year: “Working in a co-ordinated fashion means we can be not only strategic but also, crucially I believe, imaginative - coming up with new ways of doing things which challenge orthodox thinking.”

Finally, a few words on Europe. What if David Cameron doesn’t get a fulsome reform of the European Union and of Britain’s deal with Europe. Firstly, would he even admit it? and if he did, would he then campaign to leave, and what would that do to his personal standing? He’s right to grasp this nettle, but why leave it lingering for so long.   

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