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Brabin pledges to deliver mass transit for West Yorkshire

West Yorkshire’s first elected mayor and England’s first female metro mayor sees herself as a champion for passengers in a conurbation waiting for improvements. Tracy Brabin tells Lee Baker why she is upbeat about the region’s prospects for a mass transit scheme and better buses

Lee Baker
05 October 2021
West Yorkshire’s plan for a mass transit system would include a tram network
West Yorkshire’s plan for a mass transit system would include a tram network

 

People in West Yorkshire have been waiting a long time for a mass transport system. A number of schemes have been developed over the last four decades, only for each to fail to materialise. Tracy Brabin, West Yorkshire’s new mayor, is pledging a mass transit system and thinks she can avoid the false-starts of the past.

I asked former actor and local MP Brabin whether her May election pledge to have a West Yorkshire-wide system by the end of the next decade is realistic. Patronage has not returned to pre-Covid levels, and the case for a mass-transit system for the conurbation’s biggest city of Leeds has failed to gain traction a number of times before.

Her response was emphatic: “Of course it is realistic!” Pre-pandemic, Leeds had the busiest train station in northern England, and patronage rose by 15% in one month following the lifting of restrictions. “Commuters need to have sophisticated transport options,” she says, pointing out that millions of train passengers have few options for onward travel.

West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) consulted on a transit scheme earlier this year, which Brabin adopted as one of her main pledges in the May election for the newly created metro mayor role. She is keen that the first phase of the scheme benefits areas in need of new economic opportunities. “It’s not just about the cities, it’s about Dewsbury and Cleckheaton,” she says. These are towns to the south of Leeds and Bradford, with Cleckheaton having lost its rail station in the Beeching cuts.

Extending to the last mile

When I spoke with her, the Labour mayor gave me many examples of why transport matters to people’s lives. While a West Yorkshire mayor was proposed to focus on economically-led city region working, she told me repeatedly about the transport needs of individuals.

A trip from her Kirklees village to the cinema would take much longer by bus than by car, and there is no bus “going to Batley railway station so people have to get a cab there”, she told me at one point, referring to the West Yorkshire town where she was born. And when she turned to her promised electric bike scheme, she focused on “the last mile to the isolated farmhouse”.  So when she mentioned the mass transit scheme, it is not only about West Yorkshire punching its weight in competition with the likes of Umbria or Chemnitz. It’s also about “easily getting up from Leeds station to the hospital”.

This chimes with discussions among members on the WYCA on the difficulty of catering for travel demand with buses on corridors such as Leeds to Bradford and the commercial centre of Halifax to the market town of Huddersfield. 

The authority wants to start construction on the mass transit scheme this decade and has submitted a bid to the City Region Sustainable Transport Settlement, earmarked for mayoral combined authorities, for £200m to support the development and delivery of the scheme from next April. 

The WYCA can make the case for up to £920m over five years from the fund in competition with the other mayoral metro authorities. It also wants the capital funding to support rail recovery, bus reform and active travel. The initial bid is part of conversations with the Government that are continuing ahead of the Autumn Budget and Spending Review due to be held next month.

One of the authority’s stated rationales for the mass transit proposals is that they would allow people across West Yorkshire to benefit from a HS2 station on a proposed eastern leg, as well as connect this with the proposed Bradford Northern Powerhouse Rail. HS2 Ltd is currently only working on the phase 2b west, awaiting a Government steer on an eastern leg, while Bradford and WYCA continue to lobby on Northern Rail. “Both have to be built, this can’t be piecemeal. The Transpennine upgrade can’t be our only rail improvement,” Brabin says.

Nonetheless, while proposals for a previous, trolleybus-based mass transit system collapsed after a decade of planning (see panel, below), Brabin thinks the situation was different now. Firstly, the governing Conservative Party had made supportive commitments in successive elections. The Conservative candidate for the West Yorkshire mayoralty, who vied with Brabin for the role in May, had also backed mass transit. And the party nationally in 2019 committed to giving city regions the funding to upgrade their transport networks “to make them as good as London’s”. 

Public control of buses

Brabin, who was the MP for Batley and Spen for five years, said her eyes were opened to how good transport could be during her time working in London. A frequent refrain in her first weeks as West Yorkshire’s Metro Mayor on topics including a daily fare cap and bus franchising, has been that “if it’s good enough for London, it’s good enough for West Yorkshire”. She said: “We need the Conservatives to be true to their manifesto commitments. We are the largest metropolitan area in Europe without transit. Our mass transit system is needed to better connect 675,000 people in the fifth most deprived areas in West Yorkshire.”

She paused, to strike an upbeat note. “It does seem Boris Johnson is keen on it.”

There is another difference to five years ago: the prospect of public control over buses. The Government spiked the trolleybus plans five years ago after an inspector voiced concern that competition from bus operators could threaten its viability. It is unlikely this would be an issue in the future, given Brabin was elected on a pledge to use available powers to “bring buses under public control”.

She is proposing to enter into an Enhanced Partnership from April 2022, whilst at the same time ordering a £1m programme of work to get underway on a franchising scheme that would allow control over routes and fares. 

“We have high ambitions,” the mayor responded, when I asked her why she wanted work to get underway on a franchise, before the additional benefits offered by a partnership on a legal footing can be established. “I am approaching [the Enhanced Partnership] with an open mind but I want franchising proposals to be ready if I decide to press the big ‘green button’ to go ahead, so we won’t have to wait any longer should we need franchising.

“The people of West Yorkshire have waited far too long for a decent bus service.” A voluntary ‘bus alliance’ has delivered some improvements. WYCA officers consider that evidence that the Enhanced Partnership has not delivered can contribute to the case for franchising. But how will we know if this newly proposed partnership has not worked? 

Brabin replied that success would be gauged by what had been delivered. “We want capped fares across our region. If in one day you’re going to the nursery, going to the shops, running errands, taking the kids swimming, seeing friends, you shouldn’t end up paying over the odds. And, to make the cap worthwhile, she adds: “We want buses that serve stations at times that allow people to make connections with train services. And we want a better service after 8pm, and for our towns and villages.”

To date, First Bus, West Yorkshire, which has the lion’s share of the conurbation’s bus market, has invested in 195 ultra-low and zero-emission buses and started operating a third and largest park-and-ride service at Stourton (the park-and-ride was one fruit of the £173.5m earmarked for transport improvements for Leeds after the trolleybus was spiked). On the fares front, the voluntary partnership this summer delivered cheaper singles and a set of capped multi-operator single fares for under 19s.

The Enhanced Partnership proposals being drawn up will be discussed by operators through the Bus Alliance, and they will have until the end of the year to either agree the plans or formally challenge them.

Re-thinking bus routes

As well as First, the operators include Arriva, Transdev and smaller operators through the Association of Bus Operators in West Yorkshire. A spokesperson for the Alliance told me that they were committed to further improvements, including multi-operator single fares for adults over 19. How the operators will respond to specific requests for new or improved services on lower-demand routes, however, remains to be seen. 

“I know that Leeds is lucrative,” says Brabin, noting the revenue available for operators on the busiest routes. “But if we have evidence that people want to go between, say, Todmoren and Hebden Bridge, and the operators just come back and say, ‘that doesn’t work for us economically, sorry’ then that wouldn’t feel like anything has changed. We need flexibility across the piece!” 

The WYCA is undertaking a review of bus routes, in order to ensure links to areas of economic growth, as well as to look at minimum service standards for secondary and community networks. 

Post-Covid, different routes to the ones that have been running might make more sense in the future, says the mayor. “We have to make sure that our bus network is fit-for-purpose. And it might be that not everybody wants to go into city centres, you might sometimes want to go around cities, to go between villages and towns.” Brabin sees herself as the travelling public’s advocate. She said that this required thought to be given to the start and end of people’s journeys, where she sees a big role for cycling.

A third transport pledge the mayor made was to introduce new bike rental schemes for electric bikes to be included in the cost of an end-to-end journey, including disabled-accessible bikes such as trikes. “It’s not going to work if we only offer buses and trains,” she says. 

“We need opportunities for that last mile of people’s journeys.” Her manifesto stated: “Many people find traditional cycling difficult.” She told me: “I’ve just got myself an electric bike. I live in a village with a huge hill. There’s no way I could contemplate cycling up that!” 

While it is still early days for her plan, she acknowledges the need to increase investment in cycling infrastructure, given the tiny share of trips taken by bike in West Yorkshire. In total, £60m has been spent on the WYCA CityConnect project that has delivered 5m cycling trips including on the first segregated superhighway outside London, between Bradford and Leeds. 

“Catering for cycling is expensive,” the mayor says, when I asked her whether she was as ambitious for cycling as for transit and buses. “In order for [bike lanes] to be safe, they have to be segregated.” She is looking to the Government so that investment in cycling can be scaled up. Details of the bid are still under wraps, but the authority’s City Region Sustainable Transport Settlement bid is also meant to ‘build back active’ post-Covid – and the mass transit consultation highlighted the need to integrate with cycling.

The mayor made a final transport commitment: “We could call our hire bicycles ‘Brabin bikes,’ but that’d perhaps be too self-aggrandising.”

40-year journey to bring back mass transit

West Yorkshire saw the first electric tramways on the streets of Leeds and the city kept a tram system for longer than most other UK cities. Leeds has, however, struggled to secure a return of a mass transit system since the 1980s, in a period when a number of other regional cities have.

City leaders first proposed a return of trams in the 1980s, as light rail found renewed popularity with transport planners, with schemes opening in Tyne & Wear and London’s Docklands. Leeds’ proposals were not progressed following a consultation.

The idea for a more extensive three-line tram scheme for Leeds emerged in the 1990s. The Ten-Year Transport Plan then said in the year 2000 that the Government would “fund a substantial increase in the role of light rail in our larger cities”.

However, the Government also underlined the need for “rigorous assessment” and satisfaction on “the realism of forecasts of passenger numbers”. The Government cancelled Leeds’ scheme in 2005 after rising costs, and planning for an electric bus network began. 

The DfT pledged £173.5m to the trolleybus scheme but there was opposition to the scheme locally, including from FirstGroup, the city’s largest bus operator.

The Government scrapped the scheme in 2016 after an inspector cast doubt on its viability given competition with buses for passengers.

The West Yorkshire Combined Authority said immediately afterwards it was committed “to developing a fully integrated metro-style transport system for the city region with tram-train at its heart” (27 May 2016).

The WYCA launched a consultation on a mass transit for the conurbation earlier this year. The document said this could be either a tram, train-tram or bus-based mass system. It needs to be “an appealing alternative” to the car.

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