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  • Writer's pictureOur Green Warrington

David Thrower: Reimagining Warrington's public transport service

We ask David Thrower, a transport expert with significant involvement in HS2, Northern Powerhouse Rail/HS3 and the traffic forecasting team for Metrolink for his views on current transport policy in Warrington - and to whom we should be looking for inspiration and guidance if we are to reimagine our public transport service.


A key outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic is a determination, by all concerned, to “Build Back Better”, and to create a future that is more equitable, safe and more environmentally sustainable than that which we had before. This objective is very widely shared by politicians of all parties, by professionals and by the public.


So what will this mean for public transport in Warrington?


The town, which shows every sign of growing into a small city, has a background of steady and strong economic growth. Mostly, this is very much for the good. Indeed, Warrington’s economy is the envy of much of the North West.


But growth (other than during the three recent COVID lockdowns) has brought with it a steady increase in car use. Cars give instant mobility to many, but their owners can frustratingly find themselves in increasingly-long traffic queues - not just on the way to and from work but even during the middle of the day and on Sundays.



Road-widening seems to simply encourage even more car use, with the jams moving to the next (un-widened) location. You cannot build your way out of congestion. Ultimately, a car-based solution just doesn’t work.


And our residential streets are looking more and more like car-parks, with formerly-cherished green gardens replaced by bald tarmac and paving, devoid of flowers or birds, changing the character of once-pleasant suburbs. The treasured gardens of the previous generation are being tarred-over.


Increasingly, cars are even parked with two wheels, and sometimes even all four wheels, on footways, to the annoyance of pedestrians. “Parking on the pavement can obstruct and seriously inconvenience pedestrians, people in wheelchairs or with visual impairments, and people with prams or pushchairs”, paragraph 244 of the Highway Code). And “You must not drive on or over a pavement, footpath or bridleway except to gain lawful access to property or in the case of an emergency” (paragraph 145).



The growing traffic problem has other effects. As older vehicles are scrapped, air quality will steadily improve. But an electric-car future will not solve all our problems, and will do absolutely nothing to solve congestion. Increasingly, it has become difficult for pedestrians to cross numerous roads, and not just the main trunk routes. There can’t be lights or zebra crossings everywhere.


Continually-moving traffic is a particular hazard for schoolchildren, older people who are less-quick on their feet, and especially for those with poor sight, poor hearing or other disabilities. And speeding traffic, where drivers ignore the 30mph or 20mph signs, just makes a difficult situation worse.


We all worry about our children. And we will all, one day, will grow old and infirm. On a personal note, I once (in my student days) got a tiny piece of metal in my eye, which briefly needed medical attention, and had to wear a patch for just one day. The result, if you will pardon a bad pun, was an eye-opener. Overnight, I had become disabled. Suddenly, crossing a road was a nightmare.


The private car is here to stay, and most of us with either own one or aspire to do so. So, what can we all do to blunt its seemingly-relentless growth, and discourage it, if not actually stop it, from damaging the quality and safety of our lives?


Walking and cycling are great alternatives, providing the weather is kind, and a great deal is being considered by Warrington Borough Council to make both walking and cycling more attractive. There’s a very long way to go, but it’s a start.


But what about public transport?


Rail



Let’s look at rail first. Warrington is most fortunate to be on a crossroads (if you will excuse the term) of the rail network. On the north-south axis, it is served by very fast hourly intercity services provided by Avanti West Coast, running from Scotland to London, plus an additional hourly service running from Scotland to Wolverhampton and Birmingham.


On the west-to-east axis, it is served at Warrington Bank Quay by the local North Wales and Chester to Manchester service, run by the Welsh Government, and the Liverpool to Earlestown and Warrington stopping service, run by Northern. At Warrington Central, it is served by the Liverpool to Manchester, Nottingham and Norwich inter-regional service, run by East Midlands Railway, and by the local Liverpool to Manchester and Manchester Airport service run by Northern.


So we have excellent fast and convenient rail access to dozens of destinations, most importantly Liverpool, Manchester, London, Birmingham, Preston, Glasgow and Edinburgh.



There are very few towns the size of Warrington with such good accessibility by rail, anywhere in Britain. And most of the actual trains are either brand-new or fairly new, and very comfortable to travel in. Fares are very competitive, with some real bargains via pre-booking. The COVID-19 crisis has, of course, knocked patronage back, but it is rebuilding rapidly again.


The Future for Rail


And the future looks even more exciting. HS2 Phase 1 from London to Lichfield is now well under way, with construction proceeding at full speed at many sites, and the Parliamentary Bill for Phase 2A, Lichfield-Crewe, has been approved, with advance site-works started. Detailed planning of Phase 2B, Crewe-Manchester, is at an advanced stage.


HS2 services, when they commence in a decade’s time, will bring very-high-speed through services directly to Warrington (via a connection with the existing line from Crewe). This will cut travel times to London dramatically, by about half an hour. And with big new trains to fill, you can expect some very smart ticket-pricing to attract new passengers at the quieter times.



How new high speed trains could look in the UK


As if all this wasn’t enough, planning is proceeding for what has variously been called “Northern Powerhouse Rail” or perhaps more simply termed “HS3”. At the time of writing the detail of this from the government is yet be announced, but is likely to include a largely-new or at least partly-new high speed link between Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and possibly Bradford, and York, where it will link with an upgraded high-speed East Coast Main Line to Newcastle.



This will almost-certainly put Warrington town centre at the intersection of two separate high speed services, north-south and west-east. This should prove a real trump card in attracting new businesses and jobs.



Buses


If the rail network meets most of Warrington’s medium- and long-distance transport needs, local public transport comprises only buses, as the town unwisely saw fit to dispose of its five-route Victorian tram system in 1935. More of trams later. But let’s look first at the buses.


The history of bus travel in Britain has been one of ever-rising demand until the late 1950s or even the early 1960s, followed by a long and largely-uninterrupted decline. During the 1980s, there were valiant attempts to reverse this decline in Warrington, with the introduction of innovations such as “midibuses” on many routes, and even local stop-anywhere minibus routes to Penketh and Dudlows Green. These efforts, which won over new passengers, were part of Warrington Borough Transport’s modernisation of its bus fleet, with easy-access low-floor buses and the use of other marketing initiatives.


A distracting and pointless “bus war” in the mid-1990s, with “invading” bus operators trying to steal WBT’s passengers by running buses timed three minutes ahead of every WBT bus, was seen off by loyal Warrington passengers, who refused to board the “invaders”, and remained at the kerbside to await one of “their” buses. This community action actually made national news. The invaders retreated, bruised.


In 2006, Warrington Borough Transport was re-named Network Warrington, winning the National Bus Operator of the Year award in 2008. In 2018, the operator was re-branded again as Warrington’s Own Buses, in recognition of it being one of only a handful of bus fleets to remain in the ownership of its local authority. There is thus an important element of “public ownership for the public’s benefit”, with a real touch of civic pride.



Today Warrington’s Own Buses remains the dominant local operator, although there are Arriva operations from the west, from Chester, Liverpool and St Helens, and a Go North West route from Manchester through Irlam. Collectively, these three operators provide a bus service that is probably more comprehensive than that enjoyed by most freestanding towns that lie outside more-fortunate big-city Passenger Transport Executive areas such as Transport for Greater Manchester or Merseytravel.


The Warrington’s Own Buses operation includes a small number of diesel-electric hybrid buses with very low emissions. The Arriva-operated Chester route is operated by gas buses, again with very low emissions. Further very low emission vehicles are expected.


However, despite operating relatively-good services, and with modern vehicles, bus travel in Warrington has continued to decline over most of the past decade, virtually halving, though it had stabilised prior to the COVID outbreak, when of course patronage inevitably slumped to extremely-low levels. The April 12th COVID unlocking saw a marked if modest recovery from this unforeseen national emergency, with more passengers returning after the May 17th unlocking.


But passenger numbers are still well down from pre-COVID levels, and are likely to recover slowly due to understandable public caution over the pandemic’s elimination. In the meantime, Warrington’s Own Buses, its staff, the Council’s officers and elected Members and the Government all deserve immense credit for keeping going during the crisis, and not letting travellers down.




The Future for Buses


The past three decades have thus not been very good for bus travel, in Warrington or in pretty well any other city or town apart from London, where a much more proactive and supportive regime was begun under Labour’s Mayor Ken Livingstone and continued under Conservative Mayor Boris Johnson (significantly, both mayors were openly pro-bus).


However, after decades of relative disinterest in bus travel, at least in comparison to rail and the private car, Spring 2021 has marked a sudden upswing in central Government policy support for the bus mode of travel, with the publishing of the national bus strategy for England, Bus Back Better.


The new order for buses, which has the strong personal support of the Prime Minister, is to make bus travel a genuinely practical and attractive alternative for as many people as possible, rather than “the option of last resort”.


The deregulated bus market that started under Margaret Thatcher in October 1986, with its unstable services and sometimes third-hand buses, has been seen to have on balance failed, and effectively been binned. There were some very good free-market operators, but too many poor ones. Bus Back Better signals a fresh start.


The new policy also acknowledges that local authority “austerity” spending cuts under the David Cameron government simply made matters worse, and that a quality bus network is an economic necessity. Buses enable people to reach jobs, shops, education and medical facilities. New and better services are essential. This major U-turn compared with the past has been very widely welcomed on all sides.


Why has this come about? The answer is probably best summed up with three key points.


Firstly, we all know, in our heart of hearts - even the most ardent car-user - that cars cannot provide all the answers to local travel needs. And, as mentioned earlier, they bring with them a number of downsides - congestion, pollution, noise, accidents and general urban stress. Remember how we suddenly could hear the birds singing during the first lockdown in 2020? And how easy it was to cross the road? And the improved air quality and the drop in accidents?


And remember, not everyone can drive. Not everyone who does have a licence actually has a car. Parking is sometimes a pain. The car is sometimes best left at home. And occasionally cars are in dock for repair. Sometimes, it’s just nice to take the kids out on a bus ride for the fun of it.


Secondly, if you want to “turn up the volume” for public transport, in policy terms, and very rapidly, buses are really the only way this can be done quickly. New railways take many years to plan, and years more to build, as HS2 has shown and HS3/Northern Powerhouse Rail is still showing. Additional new buses, in contrast, can be ordered and obtained within months, perhaps a year at most, and new drivers recruited and trained within weeks or at most a couple of months.


Thirdly, pretty well everyone can be served by buses. Some people admittedly have severe mobility limitations that mean they really can only use cars, taxis or specially-adapted minibuses, and some residential locations are on roads that can never realistically be economically served by buses, but the majority of us live in quite dense suburbs and can be within, say, five or at most ten minutes’ walk of a bus stop.


The Latin word “omnibus” actually literally means “for all”.


So we are always going to need the bus. Warrington Borough Council has always been supportive towards bus travel. Now, Central Government has at last got the message too.


And bus travel is not the down-market nightmare that it is sometimes painted by non-users who have perhaps not been on a bus since the days of Reg Varney’s TV comedy. Warrington’s buses are still reasonably cheap - vastly cheaper than running a car, when all factors are taken into account, the car purchase, depreciation, road tax, fuel tax, MoT, parking charges, random repairs and the odd bump. Not to mention all the time spent cleaning the thing, taking it to MoTs, fuelling it and just sitting in queues.


The weekday daytime bus service network in Warrington, as noted, is actually still fairly good, although there is now a real problem with the sparsity of evening and Sunday services. The buses themselves are modern, the drivers are friendly, as of course are the local residents themselves, and once on board (and once COVID is firmly behind us) you can relax, chat, read or just look out of the window.


The really tough problems for the bus, congestion and sometimes-erratic timekeeping, are not actually of the bus operators’ making. And that’s the crux of the problem. More people using cars means more congestion (as already noted, the switch to electric cars won’t solve that). And congestion messes the buses up. In Warrington, we have an extra joker in the pack, the random opening of swing bridges.


If buses are to run to time, and really help to reduce congestion, then they have to be protected from that very same congestion with a comprehensive network of bus priorities. This will be down to Warrington Borough Council to create. And it won’t always be popular with voting motorists. There are inevitably going to have to be more bus lanes, “bus gates” where only buses can take short cuts into and out of town centres, and traffic signals that give priority to buses.


The days of seeing buses stuck in queues of cars, such as at present on the Winwick Road, losing time and risking further loss of patronage, are going to have to end. And very soon.


And the real-time information displays at stops are going to have to mean what they say. No more showing buses as three minutes away when really it’s thirteen. No more showing your bus as being due when it isn’t even running at all because it’s a Bank Holiday Monday. Wrong information is worse than none at all. No more going into information offices and finding, from the helpful but harassed staff, that the new timetable leaflet is still at the printers.


And there should be easy-to-understand timetable cases displayed on each stop. Not everyone has a smartphone. And smeary Perspex covers must be replaced, with cases positioned so as to be readable even after dark. And with timetables in larger type, so that those with different eyesight abilities can read them too. Damaged shelters are going to have to be replaced, not draped in red tape, as will broken seats.


It’s all part of a long-overdue revolution. The needs of bus passengers are going to have to move right up the priority list, ahead of those of motorists who for far too long have had millions spent on them on road-widening and junction schemes when buses have been cash-starved.


In short, buses must no longer be treated as the poor relation. It’s not just a pious hope, it’s now national Government policy.



Trams



You would have to be at least 90 years old to remember Warrington’s original electric tram system. There were five quite short routes, to Longford, to the Cemetery on the A57, to Latchford (terminating under the big railway arch), to Stockton Heath, terminating outside the Mulberry Tree (including crossing the swing bridge) and to Sankey Bridges. In some places, the rails are still there, under today’s roadways. There was a plan to link up the Latchford route with the Stockton Heath route, via a loop through Ackers Road and Grappenhall Road, but it never happened.


The very shortness of these five routes was part of the reason for their downfall by 1935. They just didn’t go far enough, whereas the new motorbuses that were appearing in the 1930s could readily reach out to new estates as the town expanded from its Victorian boundaries.


But, in retrospect, the loss of these five routes was a great shame, because anyone planning a new modern tramway in today’s Warrington would almost certainly start off with those same five routes as the basis for any network, although of course reaching out far further into today’s greatly-expanded suburbs.


Could new, modern trams offer a vital long-term solution to Warrington’s transport problems? If you had suggested re-introducing trams in the 1960s, when the New Town was created, you would probably have been laughed at. Trams were something you saw at Blackpool, old 1930s nostalgic attractions, grinding along the seafront. Every other city and town in Britain had swept them away, Glasgow being the last in 1962.



But, in the early 1980s, Greater Manchester Council began the planning of Metrolink, a bang-up-to-date street tramway modelled on best European practice, complete with new Italian-built articulated single-deck tramcars. “Light rapid transit”, as it was termed, was to be introduced on a seven-route network, starting in 1992.


It was a hit with passengers from Day One. Today, a fleet of new Austrian-built tramcars has replaced the first-generation fleet. And Metrolink is the pride of Greater Manchester, and probably one of the reasons new businesses locate there. It regularly pops up in the background on TV news.



Greater Manchester’s visionary lead was to be followed by Sheffield, Nottingham, Birmingham-Wolverhampton, Croydon and Edinburgh.


Although these are all big-city schemes - and Warrington isn’t a big city - the benefits of systems such as Metrolink have been felt in smaller peripheral centres too, such as Rochdale, Oldham, Ashton-under-Lyne and Bury.


More significantly, in France, freestanding towns such as Brest have re-introduced trams, with a first route there commencing in 2012 and a second route being developed. Brest has a population of 180,000, “Greater Brest” a population of 250,000. Remind you of anywhere?



Also worth keeping a close eye on is a much nearer example, Coventry, where a “Very Light Rail” scheme is being planned. This will use mini-trams, prefabricated lightweight track, saving the cost of diverting underground piping and cables, and will also use high-powered battery propulsion and rapid-delivery power charging to avoid the costs of having to erect poles and overhead wires everywhere.




Thinking Ahead


Warrington, at the moment, with bus carryings still severely depressed by the COVID-19 catastrophe, can probably manage very well without a tram network for the immediate future. If we need more public transport, as confidence in using the network rebuilds, and as more people return to office-based rather than home-based work, we can simply add more buses, backed up by more bus priorities.


But what of the longer-term future?


By the 2030s and 2040s, Warrington will have grown very significantly, with thousands of new homes and probably tens of thousands of extra private cars. We may have attracted the finance to build several new sections of highway. But mostly, it will be the same existing road network, the same junctions, the same traffic lights, the same roadworks, the same contraflows and even more battalions of cones.


And the roadworks will never end. That is their nature. They are essential. And they simply move about, as fresh sections require re-surfacing, or as drains, gaspipes and cables require renewal.


The arrival of electric cars, as already pointed out, will help the air quality but will do absolutely nothing for easing congestion. Indeed, if the town centre does not revive, after the loss of M&S, Debenhams and the others, and dependence on out-of-centre shopping continues, car use and car congestion may increase even further.


The return to the office, and the resurgence in commuter car use, is an unknown at this stage. Depressed commuter car use may actually mean that Warrington doesn’t succeed in attracting all the funds it will be seeking for new road schemes, notably the Western Link over the Ship Canal. It might no longer tick the Government’s policy boxes. Generous Government funding of schemes to meet peak car travel may be yesterday’s recipe for transport investment.


So, looking long term, as opposed to “in five years’ time”, planning for a tram system for Warrington may be an idea whose time has come. Such a system would not come cheaply, but there would be a number of very high profile advantages.


Firstly, “getting the foot in the door”. Several UK cities, notably Leeds, are currently either contemplating or actively seeking funding for either new tram networks or extensions to existing systems. As well as Leeds, Edinburgh (whose funding comes from the Scottish Parliament) and Birmingham-Wolverhampton are seeking extensions, and more are being considered for Manchester Metrolink, such as to Middleton, a proposal first made by me.



So, if a queue is forming, it would be a good idea to get in it, even if there was a wait of a decade. At the very least, funding for a study should be sought, as any development of a bid for funds for detailed planning would crucially depend on an initial “outline” feasibility study. If the Council doesn’t apply for study funding, the Department for Transport cannot give it. The momentum has to start with local people.


Secondly, if we had a plan, even a set of coloured lines on a street map, it would help local planners guide new development. New flats could be located along routes, instead of out in green fields. New businesses could be attracted, in the hope, if not the actual certainty, that the trams were coming.


Thirdly, town planners could avoid sanctioning developments, particularly buildings but also including highway works, that would get in the way of a tram route, should one be built in, say, 2030 or 2035. At the very least, the option needs to be kept open. We don’t want to do what inadvertently occurred at Birmingham’s HS2 site at Curzon Street station, where several new blocks of student flats were built just a few years ago, only to promptly have to be demolished again when the site was needed for the new HS2 station.


Fourthly, planning a tram system, even if it took ten or even twenty years to come to fruition, would send out a message, that Warrington was a dynamic, forward-thinking town (soon to become a city?) that was three steps ahead of its rivals elsewhere in the UK. It would become a central part of its infrastructure, backed up by a modern electric bus fleet (that part of the plan can be implemented right now) and excellent cycling and walking facilities.


In short, Warrington could become a dynamic mini-city of the 21st century, rather than a largely-Victorian town with some 1930s estates and a sprawling New Town overlay of the 1960s and 1970s added on.




But why bother with trams? Won’t buses be sufficient? Well, yes, on quieter suburban routes and links to adjacent towns such as St. Helens, Newton-le-Willows, Irlam, Altrincham and Runcorn, the bus is always going to be the way forward. But for those busy trunk corridors along the A49 and A57, trams would make a superior alternative, attracting those people out of their cars who still felt even modern buses weren’t quite for them. This has been the experience in Manchester.


A four- or five-route tram network would also greatly reinforce the town centre’s accessibility, and thus its economic vitality. The town centre has taken a severe triple-hit, from competing major out-of-town centres such as the Trafford Centre and Cheshire Oaks, from the Winwick Road and Gemini retailing developments, and from the convenience of online shopping. A tram system would significantly help to stem further decline, and start to reverse it.


So the tram option needs to be taken seriously, right now.


Is acting now really urgent? I will end with an anecdote, that I once heard from my “chief” at GMC, Keith Rogers.


A Georgian landowner was spelling out to his landscape gardener how he wanted his parkland surrounding his grand mansion to be laid-out. “I want a double line of mature oak trees running from the gatehouse up to the Hall”, he stated.


The landscape gardener retorted incredulously, “Good heavens! They will take a hundred years to mature!”


“In that case, we’d better plant them this afternoon” was the response.


It’s a good philosophy. Let’s start thinking long term. A future generation, perhaps yet unborn, will thank us for doing so.



 

David Thrower




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2 comentários


newstaus
21 de dez. de 2023

I do strongly believe that we need to create an environment that blends nature and future living together. Having more Trees, flowers and wildflowers would help rejuvenate all areas all over Warrington. Plus having more Trees does help the planet

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Amanda Bowles
Amanda Bowles
30 de mai. de 2021

Trams are great. The Manchester network is pretty slick now after a lot of teething trouble. It would be great to be able to hop on a tram from a neighbourhood stop and get direct to Manchester city centre. The risk of an improved, and faster, public transport network would be that Warrington becomes a dormitory town, I'm not sure that would necessarily be a bad thing though...

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