I’ve been commuting in the North, between Liverpool and Manchester for three months now, since joining Inflect. It sucks, and I have the data to prove it.

Each morning, I travel between Liverpool Lime St., Liverpool’s main train station, to Manchester Piccadilly, Manchester’s main train station.

The route is, unfortunately, pretty slow, taking around an hour to travel the 30 miles between the two major metropolises. But this is only part of the issue. The reliability of the service is even worse. On average, the commute out is delayed by more than 5 minutes over a third of the time.

Source: Liverpool Lime Street to Manchester Piccadilly – Journeys – On Time Trains

Unbelievably, the return journey is even worse, with nearly three-quarters of trains delayed. This means that across both journeys, there is around an 85% likelihood of me being delayed in one direction or the other.

Source: Manchester Piccadilly to Liverpool Lime Street – Journeys – On Time Trains

Commuting like this has turned me into one of those people who bang on about rail networks at parties, resolutely ignoring the glazed-over eyes of the person I am talking to.

But beyond my personal gripes, this has real impacts on Northern labour pools and productivity.

A recent Centre for Cities report points out that this problem isn’t just an inter-city one but also a problem within our Northern Cities. They estimated that 4 million people living in Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool, and Newcastle cannot travel to their city centres via public transport within 30 minutes. They calculated that this costs the UK economy at a staggering £16bn per year.

The Northern Powerhouse Rail Partnership showed that even a line linking just Manchester, Leeds and Bradford would add £22bn in GVA to the Northern economy and increase productivity in those cities by up to 6%.

To illustrate this in visual terms, the map below shows where you could live and hypothetically travel to the Inflect office in the centre of Manchester within certain travel times. The green map shows a 30-minute radius, and the blue shows a 1-hour radius. Commuting to our office in Manchester from Sale, just 5 miles away takes you outside the thirty-minute radius. Living in large parts of Bolton, just 11 miles away, would be impossible within an hour. Liverpool and Leeds don’t get close to featuring, cutting off around 1.3 million people from participating in Manchester’s labour market in those two major cities alone.

   

Source: CommuteTimeMap – Find a place to live or stay with a good commute time

It is important to add that this map assumes your journey is on time! In real terms, poor service levels like the ones I was moaning about earlier shrink these maps even further.

The reason this is a real concern, beyond the obvious reason that it is good to be able to get to places quickly, is because it leads to lower levels of talent matching.

It requires workers to move home to get certain jobs when they would rather live elsewhere. This might be feasible for high-level professionals, but for those just starting out in their careers, the capital cost of moving may be beyond their means.

It also limits the ability of many companies to find customers and suppliers within reasonable distances. Overall, it increases the cost and barriers to doing effective business.

Public transport in the North is an old problem, and one that was emphasised by the scrapping of HS2, and replacing it with the hypothetical Network North. Northern Powerhouse Rail has been shouting about these issues for years. At Inflect, we bring policymakers together to address the issues by running an annual Northern Transport Summit to try to drive the policy agenda on these issues.

Ultimately, though, Northern productivity will still lag behind its Southern counterparts until Westminster commits to Northern transport, invests in it fully, and sees its flagship projects through to completion. This requires a dramatic change in the short-term thinking in Westminster, a commitment to deliver long-term infrastructure investment and, probably, a change to how the Treasury assesses value for money via its Green Book.

Sadly, given the current state of our national politics, such a sea change in attitudes does not feel imminent, which will leave the North stranded behind London and struggling with low productivity and restricted access to talent.

Until these issues are tackled we will not truly be able to unlock the North’s potential and, if rail networks aren’t your thing, then, you should probably just avoid me at parties…

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