A big day for news about TfN

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Trouble oop north (Ed. who was born in Blackpool)
'It looks like levelling down' - Government slashes northern transport budget and shelves London ...
Manchester Evening News
The Government has slashed funding to the body that oversees transport in the north - throwing into jeopardy a plan for London-style smart ticketing ... Transport for the North, the body which oversees transport planning including the £39bn Northern Powerhouse Rail scheme to cut journey times between big cities, will lose 40 per cent of its core funding and a fifth of its total annual support for the next financial year. The most significant let-down is the retraction of a promise of £105m for smart ticketing.
…more on this (Ed.)

A big day for news about TfN - all of it on the de-funding of it by the DfT. It looks like another nail in TfN's coffin. Most of what gets written by journalists is, of course, not quite correct - after all they are not experts. I really want to say something on this subject, having closely watched it for years, and having been a little involved at the start.

Taking the long and helicopter view: TfN was a political creation at the fag end of the coalition government. The DfT didn't want it, the executives in what are now city regions (and were then going from being PTE's to becoming Combined Authorities and now Mayoralties) didn't want it. It was never given any autonomy - all TfN's expenditure was controlled by the DfT. TfN tried to carve out a role between city regions and the national government, where none really exists.

What has it achieved? It has spent vast sums on consultancy and preparing plans that will never see the light of day. I'll give you two examples.

Example 1 is the much demanded Northern Powerhouse Rail. It is predicated on the idea that faster links between cities will make people travel. I'm not convinced. If you get on the train in the morning rush hour at Manchester Piccadilly on its way to Leeds, you will find it less than half full. The train fills up at Huddersfield (packed to the gunwales) and empties in Leeds. Similarly in the morning rush hour from Leeds to Manchester - empty at Leeds, fills up half way between the cities, and empties at Manchester. There are very few people who regularly travel between Leeds and Manchester, much less between say Leeds and Newcastle or Liverpool. Most travel in the North is local. In that context, it's difficult to justify billions of pounds in Capex on NPR.

Example 2: TfN's Integrated Ticketing arm, IST, which was originally seen as a potential source of quick wins. But, it relied on consultants who were, frankly, ignorant of the ticketing market, ticketing technology, and public transport. They did know about EMV payments though. TfN IST and the consultants therefore ignored the possibility of an "Oyster-style" ITSO-based ticketing and pre-payment solution. They could have implemented "Noyster" for very little money and very quickly (and still could if they wanted). Instead, TfN instead decided it wanted to use contactless EMV to deliver some kind of capped fare solution - despite the security, technical, and business process issues. It turns out that:

  • the business process issues are insoluble unless you have a "closed" system (like TfL with gates and validators everywhere and draconian penalty fare system), and you can mandate how the payment is processed, which simply isn't the reality of public transport in the north;
  • the technical and security issues can only be overcome at the cost of huge investment in hardware and software;
  • the on-going costs of the solution would be just too great for bus operators to bear;
  • and, there's poor evidence that there is a quantifiable benefit from such a solution.

So here we are, five years on. Tens of millions spent. Very little to show for it. It looks like the DfT gave TfN just enough slack to let it demonstrate that it is unnecessary, and is slowly closing it down now there is a government that is keen on centralised decision making and control.

I understand that northern politicians are concerned that the north won't get the investment it needs (as a northerner who's tried the south and came back years ago, I share the concern) but I can't weep over TfN.

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