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Behind the scenes in the "Northern Powerhouse"

The North rejects the Oyster card model... but what does that actually mean?

“It’s not an Oyster card … We are putting something in for a next generation,” said Brown, adding the thinking behind smart ticketing was all about how to persuade drivers stuck in jams to take the train instead: “It’s about people sitting getting frustrated on the M62. What do they need that would persuade them to use a northern powerhouse rail system? None of them say: ‘I want a blue card in my wallet.’ They want affordable travel that they know how much they are going to pay to use, with a system that is easy to use and that they can use on every train.”

He added: “What people want is certainty about what you are going to pay in a day. You’d want some sort of account which said ‘thanks for travelling across the north, you’re going to get a discount’, and not worrying if you have got on the right train or bus, or wondering ‘have I bought the right ticket?’”

It's pretty apparent that they're talking about some sort of flexible contactless/near-field ticketing set-up, whether through cards or mobile devices; one suspects that the only difference from the Oyster system will be the opportunity to have a non-registered card which you top up as and when you need it; while that's a useful system for us as end-users, it doesn't capture enough valuable data exhaust and personal travel profile data, the reselling of which can be assumed to be a revenue stream already baked in to any plans. And of course we can't have anonymous travel because [terrorism].

Also, people are talking about a new cross-Pennine tunnel crossing:

Building a new road and rail tunnel under the Pennines was a “bold” idea, said TfN’s chair, John Cridland, former director general of the CBI, who insisted that as a very new organisation having been founded in November, TfN was in the early days of creating a pan-northern transport system.

“We have economic assets, Manchester and Sheffield, that are completely disconnected at the moment,” he said, revealing that a feasibility study had shown digging a trans-Pennine tunnel with road and rail side by side was possible. “If you are building a single economic entity while respecting the fact there are still the Pennines in the way you need to run up the flag post some bold thinking,” he said.

It's not bold at all -- it was bold in the 1800s, perhaps, when the original transPennine tunnels and canals were built, but now the only boldness lies in imagining that Gideon will actually put his hand into his pocket and give the grubby proles the toffee he's promised them.

Cynicism aside, what's often overlooked is that the idea of connecting up the Liverpool-Manchester-Sheffield-Leeds corridor isn't a new idea so much as an attempt to revert to the original and long-established economic orientation of the north, which was always dominated by an east-west flow with export connectionss to Europe, the Americas and beyond, and it has been argued that the dismantling of that east-west network, particularly the railways during the regrouping exercise of the interwar years, effectively removed the possibility of economic independence for the region.

However, over the last century we've moved from a situation where almost all long-distance freight went by rail to where it almost all goes by road, so improved transPennine rail links are only going to improve passenger travel times; the secondary infrastructure for rail freight that still exists is slowly rotting away since its abandonment during privatisation; hence the suggested need for a road link, which has the added bonus of being easier to sell to parliament (which has always loved roads, particularly when Tory) and car users (whose sense of entitlement to new infrastructure has been very carefully manufactured and sustained by parliament).

And who knows -- perhaps they'll pull it off:

Cridland urged northerners to take the powerhouse concept seriously, saying he would not have taken the 30-day-a-year chairmanship if he thought it was an empty gimmick.

(What a hero! Though I expect the compensation package may have been something of an inducement, too.)

The devolution deals signed with Greater Manchester and other city regions showed Osborne was serious, he insisted: “I just see an opportunity, of London prepared to let go. You have to almost pinch yourself a bit. [Osborne] has not just made a speech about it, he’s signing these deals, he’s signing off on things flowing in our direction."

Oh, yes: responsibility is definitely flowing in their direction, if not the ability to raise and spend funds, and I'm sure there'll be bountiful opportunities for the usual suspects in the consultancy industry before it gets kicked off into the long grass. 

If the north wants its destiny back, it'll have to do more than tug its collective forelock to London.