Former transport minister describes the GCP’s decision to go for busways rather than light rail as ‘a shame’

Norman Baker, the former Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes, and also a former Transport Minister at the Department for Transport during the 2010-15 Coalition Government spoke at an online event organised by the Light Rail Transit Association (LRTA).

The LRTA is currently offering a free three month digital subscription for new members – and they also offer student memberships too.

Left – the rates (the online only one for students if I recall correctly is around £27 annually. Not cheap, but given how intense the feeling is around the future of transport in and around Cambridge is, this is the place to go to for informed content – and also coverage of how other towns and cities that have light rail are benefiting from their electrified, co-ordinated, and integrated public transport systems.

Now the Director for External Affairs at the Campaign for Better Transport (formerly Transport 2000), he spoke in that capacity on all things light rail. The background to this is his proposals for light rail.

Norman Baker’s Ten Point Plan for Light Rail

You can read it here. To summarise from this previous blogpost on the OxCam Arc’s return,

  1. Incorporate light rail into national decarbonisation plans
  2. Overhaul the Transport and Work Act 1992 – simplify processes
  3. Identify where in the UK light rail is best suited – eg Leeds
  4. Reallocate funds from the £27billion Road Building Programme to light rail
  5. Empower local councils to levy [prosperous] businesses to pay for infrastructure
  6. Assess how to improve construction and delivery of light rail schemes – learn from Edinburgh tramways and others
  7. Explore variations in light rail – including very light rail /DLR for smaller cities and large towns
  8. Integrated ticketing (Still waiting for this on buses)
  9. Mobilise supporters effectively (easier said than done)
  10. Require transport ministers to present an annual light rail report to Parliament and be cross-examined by MPs and Peers on it in public.

Above – the former Transport Minister Norman Baker in Tramways and Urban Transit Magazine (which comes with membership of the LRTA).

“Why so few tramways in the UK?”

That’s one for transport historians – have a look at this short video on London’s trams.

The Light Rail Strategy for the UK by UK Tram produced a map showing where current systems are operating – this screenshot below shows how few there are across the middle belt of England – noting none in Wales. Blackpool, Tyne & Wear, and Edinburgh also have trams/light rail.

Above – a detail from the map on p9 of the Light Rail Strategy for the UK

Connect Cambridge isn’t the only place that desperately needs a radical alternative to the motor car. Leeds is long overdue a metro system – see Rail Future here. For whatever reasons, the Labour Government that promised an integrated public transport system within a decade of Labour coming to power in the 1990s, was unable to deliver on that promise.

That said, the West Yorkshire Combined Authority has published its plan for 2040, which you can read here.

Above – detail from the proposals from WYCA

In Cambridge and County we are nowhere near that – not least because of our broken governance structures that are over-complicated and do not form a single economic, social, or political zone. As I’ve mentioned in previous blogposts, we can’t even agree a consistent name. (Cambridge, Cambridge & District, Greater Cambridge, Cambridge Sub-Region, Cambridgeshire, Greater Cambridgeshire, Cambridgeshire & Peterborough, West Anglia…!)

What happened last time when Mr Baker visited Cambridge

He looked a little younger when he visited Cambridge a decade ago.

Above – The then Minister outside Cambridge Railway Station before the redevelopment – with the chaotic and not-fit-for-purpose cycle racks for commuters that, even today with the multi-storey version (that is plagued by thefts) still does not provide enough safe cycle storage space to meet demand.

On cycling things have improved with the completion of some of the greenways, the first phase of the Chisholm Trail including a new cycle bridge linking East Chesterton and Abbey wards, and the progression of phase 2 which will link Cambridge United’s Abbey Stadium with Cambridge Railway Station. (See the documents on the right from the now closed consultation here).

Light Rail Q&A

I put two sets of questions to the former Minister. The first was a policy-wonk Q about local government finance and local government structures. (i.e. can we find further ways of raising money without having to go cap-in-hand to The Treasury? And does he agree with the Public Administration & Constitutional Affairs Committee that local government in England needs a radical overhaul?) The second set was about getting more young people, and a larger, more diverse group of people involved in public transport campaigning.

Mr Baker’s main points in response were about making public transport relevant to the lives of young people – in particular at the times that they need them given their lifestyles. Furthermore, he mentioned the competition from app-based services such as Uber – which research in the USA shows it has increased road congestion in their cities. (There are also safety, workers’ rights issues, and abiding by minimum wage laws with such business models – and tougher regulation might help level that playing field/equalise that market)

For me, high profile public engagement with teenagers and young people is something that should be routine for local councils, transport providers, and education establishments at the start of each academic year. Furthermore it is something that can incorporate future career prospects to learning how democracy and politics functions (and what to do when it malfunctions).

Next steps?

I was having a ponder through my brain fog earlier this evening – the World Cup Semi Finals having largely passed me by (although this article on Morocco’s progress by Aina J Khan caught my eye on the impact the tournament has, and might continue to have on breaking negative stereotypes of Women of Colour.)

Recent protests

We had the pro-and-anti demonstrations over the Greater Cambridge Partnership’s proposals. There was also a Q&A event at Milton Road Library which was videoed here – and at the time of posting had just under 600 views. (Which is ***huge*** for a local neighbourhood meeting). Campaigners in favour of the proposals turned out in numbers as reported by the new here – the project of John Elworthy, a longtime former print press editor for the old stable of newspapers that covered north Cambridgeshire. (Ely Standard, Wisbech Standard, CambsTimes which got taken over and suffered cuts similar to other local papers). The previous weekend, opponents to the road charging elements of the proposals turned out in numbers as the Cambridge Independent reported.

As I’m in the ‘abolish everything, start from scratch, give us a properly constituted and empowered unitary council and build a light rail now!’ camp, I’m not losing too much sleep over the present consultation. It’s way too narrow in scope and so much has changed since the 2016 consultations that the results of those ones are now obsolete in my opinion.

What I’d like to see happen (although I’m not sure what my role would be in such an action/series of actions) is for some events targeted at, and hosted at the major employment clusters (Addenbrooke’s, the Biomedical Campus, Cambridge University Press, The Railway Station area, the Science Park). The purpose is raising awareness *and* getting a handful of new, interested people on board and active. Easier said than done – for every appeal for volunteers and campaigners for any cause or project, the follow-through rate is inevitably very low. Even more so in such uncertain times with morale so low in so many sectors. Yet the small geographical boundaries for the GCP automatically excludes commuters and regular visitors to Cambridge who have to cross county boundaries – something that Rail Future East picked up on in their Cambridge meeting last weekend. (If it’s improving rail services into, out of, and around Cambridge you’re interested in, join Rail Future East here.)

Is this something that the various transport campaigners of the different modes could get together. on for late spring/early summer (when the weather is warmer), when perhaps sharing the costs of a couple of ‘pop-ups’ or events could enable wider audiences to pick and choose from what’s available?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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