Andy Burnham’s rail station failure is bad news for GMSF

Oxford Road StationSlipped into the middle of Andy Burnham’s transport speech last week was a surprising announcement. The Mayor of Greater Manchester revealed that the city’s bid to take control of its rail stations had failed.

The original bid, Burnham said, had been rejected in the summer. A follow-up bid for a trial of taking over 12 stations was also unsuccessful.

This announcement puts a brake on Burnham’s plans to both improve and better exploit the station buildings. Some of this exploitation would be commercial (having more retail units in our smaller stations, for example). Others might be non-commercial. A station might have a drop-in centre to see a nurse, or community facilities.

Problems for GMSF

But it will also cause problems for the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF), currently some two years behind its original schedule.

When Burnham came in as Mayor, he took the same view on the GMSF as many other commentators and campaigners. That first draft of the plan, he said, had too much building on the Green Belt. Too much green space would be lost, too much urban sprawl created, generating too much pollution from all those commuting by car.

The answer, Burnham and others have argued, is to focus on higher-density building around transport hubs. This is a sensible approach. Clearly not all the new housing need can be met in this way, but more can be than was proposed in the original GMSF draft.

Transport hubs

If you live near a transport hub, you will have shops, cafes and other services within easy walking distance. When you do need to travel further, there’s a better chance it will be by public transport or cycling. You are more likely to choose not to own a car, or at least to own one car instead of two or three.

But these sorts of urban sites tend to be complex to develop. Stations may have under-used land or derelict buildings around them, but they are unlikely to have green fields. Chances are the land will not all be in the same ownership. Putting together a coherent masterplan to develop the area around a station is a hard slog. And Network Rail are notoriously poor at working effectively with local councils in the way that’s needed.

That means fewer homes will be built around stations, leaving more that have to be built elsewhere, including on the Green Belt. We may get a clue about just how much of difference it will make when the second GMSF draft comes out next summer.

The Government’s rejection of Burnham’s plan will have repurcussions well beyond the stations themselves.

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I must disagree strongly with ian’s view of the rejection of the TfGM (‘Andy Burnham’s’) plan to take over the management of 97 railway stations will impact negatively on the GMSF and is a retrograde step as far as Gtr Manchester is concerned. I actually think the opposite. The TfGM plans were over optimistic and seriously flawed. At the core they failed to grasp the reality of what is out there in the way of potential alternative future uses for under-used station buildings – there is no ‘army’ of eager community groups and SME’s eager to take on the premises.

It has to be admitted that investment in minor stations is piecemeal. The issue is that stations are a source of costs, but little revenue (even though the train operating companies do pay for the parts they make use off). However, part of the problem in Manchester is that in the 1990’s, after privatisation, Greater Manchester invested little in rail. The focus was on Metrolink, whereas elsewhere in Merseyside, West Yorkshire and the West Midlands there was a consistent programme of investing in improvements in ‘heavy rail’ stations;

The major issue is that a consistent programme investment in stations will require a many £millions, paid consistently over many years. There is no guarantee that such funds will be available from Central Government (as with all rail funding we will face variations);

In terms of guaranteed funding from the Greater Manchester Districts, again that too cannot be confirmed for years ahead. After all the Districts are under many funding pressures. Do the 10 Districts really wish to commit to 30 years continuous investment in their local railway stations – when they will also face demands impacting on regeneration, housing, schools, social services etc.;

All those £millions and the huge effort involved in taking over the management of stations would have brought limited returns, both in socio-economic terms and financially. Even simply assessing stations ‘asset’ values (when in many cases the reality would have been identifying ‘liability’ negative values) is a challenge. Then there was the suggestion that it would be possible to develop custom made plans for each station, etc. That would have been a massive bureaucratic nightmare. All this would have been a huge distraction from the many major problems Andy Burnham and others will face in developing and implementing a sensible GMSF. Thus is, indeed, 2 years late, but better late and developed properly that rushed through and flawed.

Certainly, there is a major need for changes in how local railway stations are managed. However, adding yet another layer of bureaucracy unto an already over-complex situation, as would have happened with the TfGM plan is not the answer. There is a need for a longer-term view on station investment, and a more consistent focus by Network Rail. It has to be admitted that their approach has been the opposite, very inconsistent. Also, Network Rail has an, at times, inflexible and unimaginative view ln stations. This often results in station buildings lying empty and uncared for. These shortcomings can be overcome in other ways that TfGM suggests. Certainly, there needs to be a review by the rail industry on how smaller stations are managed and improved.;

In the latter case the Rail Development Group have promised improvements and progress. I do think it is wise to wait and see. Frankly, TfGM’s management of Metrolink Stations is not consistently good. For example, look at the eyesore that Bury Interchange is, the empty buildings at Altrincham, Sale, Trafford Bar and elsewhere;
Metrolink. With the latter, TfGM has a large management structure, that almost exactly mirrors that of the operator. Arguably, that is too large, duplicates work, slows down sensible commercial decision making and is costly. It does not always result in a better ‘overall product’ being delivered in a cost-effective way. I fear it would have been the same with railway stations if the management had been devolved.

In short, the management of and investment in local stations must be improved, In contrast to the Gtr Manchester proposals, Transport for the West Midlands has rejected the option taken by TfGM and is developing a firmer partnership approach in working with the railway industry. The question must be asked, is a better way forward a stronger partnership with the railway industry – building on the commitments already contained in the rail franchises – and removing the existing blockages to progress. A key part of the future must be closer working between the TOC’s, Network Rail, ACORP and other stakeholders.

Roy G Chapman
Managing Director
Lynwood Transtec Ltd.

By Roy G Chapman