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‘We want a London-style transport system, nothing less’ says Rotheram

With his talk of bus franchising and a take-over of Merseyrail, Liverpool City Region’s metro mayor Steve Rotheram is very ambitious about taking control of transport systems. Passengers must be won back, and who owns and delivers transport is what really matters, he tells Lee Baker

Lee Baker
17 November 2021


When Liverpool City Region’s metro mayor Steve Rotheram addressed delegates at a Landor LINKS event some three years ago, his vision for transport was resolutely upbeat. This was despite the fact the conference, held on the Liverpool Waterfront, took place shortly after timetable chaos had made rail travel difficult or impossible in Northern England. 

Now, after the far greater disruption to the transport system caused by Covid-19, with bus patronage still down by 20% from pre-pandemic levels and the Merseyrail franchise running at a loss, Rotheram is still feeling chipper.

“We think it will recover. But we want to get into growth.” He notes the stance of Network Rail chairman Peter Hendy that fewer train services are likely to run in the future, due to lower passenger numbers but maintains that it will be a different story on the Mersey.

“We’ve bucked the trend before,” he says, with Merseyrail’s increases in patronage since it took control of the franchise having been praised by public transport campaigners. 

Merseyrail expansion

The Labour mayor’s optimism when I met him was bolstered by what he described as “the good news” in the Spending Review, “after 11 years of austerity”. 

Chancellor Rishi Sunak had just announced the go-ahead for the city region’s £710m bid to expand and improve the Merseyrail network. Rotheram’s ‘Merseyrail For All’ plan includes plans to connect all parts of the city region, from inner city neighbourhoods to outlying suburbs, into the network (see panel, below). 

“We welcome any award… but that was after we made a strong business case and we fought hard for that.” The plans are designed to build on increases in patronage delivered under the franchise, and also improve accessibility in a conurbation with lower levels of car ownership than the national average. 

The mayor summarises the aim: “We want to get people beyond the confines of where they are.” Rotheram, one of England’s first metro mayors, was re-elected in May in an election in which he hailed his campaign to strip train operator Northern of its rail franchise and pledged to deliver “London-style transport”. He would do this by extending “local control” of the rail franchise to bus services, and extending public ownership from the rolling stock to the track and stations, and even, potentially, operating Merseyrail itself. Rotheram says he is making progress. 

He is negotiating on a memorandum of understanding that would pave the way for a city region take-over of the relatively self-contained Merseyrail network: “The track, the land, the car parks, the whole lot.” 

The mayor says that the need to generate income is one driver, having spoken of the opportunity to build housing. He is also eyeing the Merseyrail franchise, due to expire in 2028. When I ask him about bus reform, he is keen to stress: “I don’t just want the buses, I want the trains.”

Before the pandemic pushed the Merseyrail franchise into the red, an analysis claimed it made an operating loss once fixed costs such as staff and fuel were taken into account (LTT 8 Dec 2017). Since then, the risk of running rail or bus operations has increased, given greater uncertainty over revenue caused by the pandemic.

But the Mayor says that “there’s always a risk, whatever you do,” and emphasises the opportunity for the city region having more levers to make transport changes. “If we have the track, it’s easier for us to expand and grow. If we are running the trains and the buses, we can make sure we don’t lose passengers because trains aren’t pulling out as the bus pulls in.”

Publicly-owned trains

Rotheram has used the new powers won through the city region’s devolution agreement to invest nearly half a billion pounds in brand new rolling stock. While the trains have been held up from entering service (see panel on page 17), he is nonetheless proud of having the first publicly-owned trains in the country. 

He acknowledges, however, that borrowing to replace the old rolling stock with larger-capacity trains has increased the city region’s imperative to grow patronage.

Over the summer, Rotheram set out ambitious plans to expand Merseyrail further afield: into Lancashire and Wales. While this could be a way to increase patronage, it would not achieve his aim of improving connectivity within the city region. He has decried the fact that for some people in the city region, “Liverpool can feel as far away as London”.

I ask him whether he would prioritise better serving residents in Woodchurch, an area of Birkenhead on the Wirral peninsula, who currently have to take around a 22-minute bus journey to access Merseyrail.

“It’s not either/or, I want people who work here to be able to jump on a train owned by us!” He adds: “We’re not doing this out of the goodness of our hearts, there’s a commercial opportunity here. We want to increase the farebox to pay for these new, state-of-the-art trains.”

Rotheram has ideas for increasing the farebox on buses, too. “The way we get people using public transport again is to make it a genuine alternative to the car.” He says that planned new hydrogen buses that will be supplied by Alexander Dennis Ltd and delivered through the Transforming Cities Fund will help. Speaking to me while COP26 was taking place, he says: “The more the climate emergency is advertised and highlighted, people will want to play their part and use public transport.”

The buses will, like the trains for Merseyrail, be publicly-owned, and will ply the city regions’ busiest route, between St Helens and Liverpool. The arrangements for operating those buses in the future is still an open question.

Bus franchising

One month before England’s first Covid-19 lockdown in March 2020, Rotheram said that franchising was the “frontrunner” option for bus reform, ahead of an enhanced partnership (LTT 21 Feb 2020). This is because the city region authority officers forecast that there would be a need to increase levels of financial support in the future, but without any control over fares and scheduling. 

After 18 months of the pandemic, the operators told the City Region transport committee that patronage had rebounded faster than elsewhere in the country, to 80% of pre-pandemic levels. But while bus travel for leisure purposes was growing, it was uncertain when, or even if, passengers would return in the same numbers, especially concessionary farepayers and commuters. 

They also asserted that the current partnership is working well and this would be the best way to deliver improvements for passengers more quickly and affordably in the future.

But the mayor does not accept that the fall in bus passenger numbers has weakened the case for franchising. “The problems in the current broken system have only been exacerbated by Covid, which the taxpayer has stepped in to help. It’s crystalised our determination to ensure we have a transport system fit for the 21st Century.”

He acknowledges that this would mean higher levels of support but rejects the claim from Merseyside’s big two operators that they are better placed to deliver improvements in partnership. “We want a London-style transport system and London’s system ran throughout Covid.” Key to this, he says, is for the city region to “get the same sort of subsidy levels that London has”. 

He says that operators, like Arriva and Stagecoach, who the city region has been in a five-year voluntary partnership with, “take some of the revenue as a margin for shareholders… we want to invest that back into the system”. While they “may have accepted the principle” that there needs to be capped daily and weekly fares, like in London, “they haven’t acted to deliver this”, Rotheram believes. 

Again, he is keen to emphasise the progress the city region is making towards his goal, this time to control bus services. While the Bus Services Act 2017 is “cumbersome,” and the city region authority was “diligently” working on the case, they were catching up with Manchester, which led the way. “Manchester was four years ahead of us, and now they are only one year ahead, partly because of what they went through, and we learned lessons from them.”

Whenever there’s been a fares promotion, like for young people, we get a spike in use. You do that with everyone, it will massively increase

Integrated Rail Plan

Northern Powerhouse Rail is one transport improvement outside Rotheram’s control. When the conversation turns to the new rail network, which the Government was expected to make a long-awaited decision on within days as we spoke, Rotheram’s optimism fades. He is not convinced that the project, as currently proposed, represents an improvement.

He has been fighting to get the Government to realise “the folly of providing a cheap and nasty version of what we need,” by using the “circuitous route” of the Fiddlers Ferry line. He has told the DfT this would not only fail to deliver the original Northern Powerhouse Rail vision of 20 minutes between the cities, it would also cause disruption by working on an existing rail line.

He does not rule out opposing the scheme if this is what is supported in the Integrated Rail Plan. “If the economic harm is greater than the benefits, why would we accept that? They wouldn’t cut London off while they build HS2, and that’s because it’s a brand-new line.

“I want a London-style transport system. I will never accept second-best.”

He does, however, remain gung-ho that the city region’s transport services can succeed. “Whenever there’s been a fares promotion, like for young people, we get a spike in use. You do that with everyone, it will massively increase.”

He warms to his theme of the Liverpool City Region being better-placed to do well than the rest of the country. “It’s us who are getting better, battery-powered trains; it’s us who are getting a fleet of hydrogen buses; the rest of the country isn’t getting that.”

How buying trains is route to expanding a network

Metro mayor Steve Rotheram cites the success of Liverpool City Region is securing “local control” of the Merseyrail franchise. A big focus in his first term was building on its performance by replacing the franchise’s rolling stock, as it approached 40 years of age.

The 52 new trains, which each have space for up to 50% more passengers, 

were due to come into service last year, but due to the pandemic, they are currently undergoing tests before entering into operation next year.

Nonetheless, ordering the trains from Swiss manufacturer Stadler is facilitating his pledge to extend the Merseyrail network across all six city region boroughs. The Class 777 trains were specified with an eye to the requirements of the city region’s long-term rail strategy.

They have been designed to eventually run beyond the current Merseyrail boundaries to places as far afield as Warrington and Wrexham, starting with Skelmersdale.

The battery-powered trains will first operate to deliver services at a planned new station at Headbolt Lane, Kirby. The Spending Review’s £710m for the plans means the go-ahead for this new station including 300 park-and-ride spaces and a bus interchange. 

This will serve the large employment site of Knowsley Business Park and residents of Northwood and Tower Hill, some of whom live half an hour or more away from Kirby station on foot.

It would see Merseyrail services run into the new station, as opposed to the current services which only run as far as Kirkby. Northern services from Wigan and Manchester would also operate to and from the new station. 

The development also forms part of the plans to build new rail link to Skelmersdale, which would connect to the Merseyrail network via Kirkby and Headbolt Lane. This Lancashire town is only 13 miles north of Liverpool but is at least 80 minutes away by public transport.

The plan to build a new line to Skelmersdale will also be made easier and more affordable by the regenerative battery technology on-board the new trains which store the energy from braking and accelerating. This technology will allow them to run for some distance without the need for an electrified third rail. 

Taking Merseyrail to Skelmersdale would be one step in the Mayor’s plans to extend the Merseyrail network, including across all six city region boroughs. Rotheram wants to connect under-served communities such as Rainhill in St Helens, Widnes in Halton and Woodchurch on the Wirral. A planning application has been submitted for the first new station at Headbolt Lane.

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