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"South to North and back again, reflections of a renegade transport co-ordinator" by John Carr: Wednesday 27 April 2022

Scottish Region members at the meeting.d

Scottish Region members at the meeting.

© John Yellowlees

Born in 1946 on the Isle of Sheppey where his dad was awaiting demobilisation, John suffered early exposure to interesting railways.

The Sheppey Light Railway built by Colonel Stephens still chugged nearby, and visits to his grandparents at Elsenham brought sights of another light railway that fizzled out a mile short of its nominal destination at Thaxted.

Relocation at seven weeks to Liverpool would bring an introduction to docks, ferries, trams and the Overhead, while a move to Frodsham at age seven presented the Manchester Ship Canal and its Railway. A short stint in Morpeth left John captivated by locos of the North Eastern Railway and LNER, and resetting at Lymm brought visits to signal boxes, exploration on his bike and the activities of the school railway society.

Off John went in 1963 to Leeds University, where if asked what subject he had read he might as well have said in all honesty "railway books mainly"! Starting a physics degree, he soon found computing more interesting, so via combined studies in maths was able to do a postgraduate MSc in the quaintly titled "electronic computation". A pioneer in preservation, the Middleton Railway provided a welcome distraction working freight trains on Wednesday afternoons and at weekends, while vacation work at Windscale gave him fun with industrials and at weekends on "laal Ratty". The lure of a railway career proved strong, but after an interlude in London at a transport computing consultancy in 1967 it was back to Leeds as a lecturer in computing the following year and then to Strathclyde University in 1972, lecturing in operational research.

This was an era of concern about rural bus services epitomised by the Jack Report and about traffic in towns, on which Professor Colin Buchanan presented his findings - and while addressing different contexts and impacts, the real problems of both were about access and mobility. An opportunity arose in 1976 to join the Greater Glasgow Passenger Transport Executive established three years earlier, and with the new Strathclyde Regional Council delegating passenger transport functions outwith the PTE area to it the name was changed to Strathclyde PTE.

As a senior bus planner from 1976 to 1979, John found himself working on the Greater Glasgow bus priority study. Claiming to clip minutes off your journey and pennies off your fare, the Linwood Clipper was an express bus on the M8 that would replace the doomed Kilmacolm railway. Parts of South Ayrshire and South Lanarkshire provided one of four study areas for the Government's Rural Transport Experiments which used community transport, small vehicles, demand-responsive operation, dual-purpose and feeder services to provide cost-effective mobility where conventional buses had failed: the Medwyn Gypsy brought new flexibility to bus provision in the hinterland of Carnwath while replacement of Garelochhead Coach Services by Phipps Coaches was an early use of the relaxed powers of the Transport Act 1980. An example of dual-purpose operation was postbuses, which would later be killed off for all the wrong reasons : however the findings from RUTEX laid the foundations for the Transport Act 1980 and the PPVA of 1981 which deregulated coach services, introduced trial areas where Road Service Licenses were suspended, removed fares regulation, restricted objections to RSLs on grounds of abstraction, permitted volunteer-driven community bus services with permits for operators other than bus companies, allowed fee-paying adults on school buses and taxibuses. This most radical of measures since the 1968 Act is often forgotten today but would be the forerunner of complete deregulation in 1985.

John's time as Chief Public Transport Coordinator with a team of five outbased coordinators gave him the best job in British public transport since it embraced all modes including Loganair, the Scottish Bus Group and 40 private bus operators, the vessels of Caledonian MacBrayne, Western Ferries and Strathclyde's internal routes and rail up to 25 miles outside the Section 20 boundary. Efficient use of subsidy helped address rural poverty, and ferries included lifeline services to small islands as well as the mainland crossing cutting out a long detour from Gourock to Dunoon.

Reorganisation consequent on arrival of a new Director-General left John as Planning Manager in 1981. Broadening his transport interests in 1982 he joined Strathclyde Regional Council's Policy Planning Department managing the Region's Transport Policies and Programmes with input from the PTE, Roads and Planning Departments and also its Concessionary Travel Unit.

A particularly interesting ferry crossing was the one from Gourock to Kilcreggan with connecting buses for civilians to the naval bases at Faslane,and Coulport. In parallel Naval launches buzzed around doing a similar job of naval personnel plus forays to the US Depot ship in the Holy Loch. The modern Moovit app was used to give step-by-step directions on how to take public transport to the Kilcreggan peninsula from some of the key centres used by its residents showing the high social value of this unassuming ferry service.

In 1983 John moved south to West Yorkshire, becoming Head of Public Transport Operations first at the Metropolitan Council and then with the Passenger Transport Authority. In 1986 his unit became the Policy Unit of Metro, the PTE. Since the Local Government Acts a decade previously, the emphasis had broadened to focus on Travel to Work areas which extended much wider than the boundaries of any individual District Council. Now somewhat against early indications the PTEs survived abolition of the Metropolitan Counties and GLC, acquiring politically-balanced Joint Boards of District Council nominees.

John was seconded to the Association of Metropolitan Authorities in 1984 to advise on bus privatisation and deregulation (from which London was exempted). Important aspects that required particular attention included concessionary travel, staff transfer and pensions and a focus particularly in the Lords on disability. Meanwhile Leeds North-West electrification of the Airedale and Wharfedale lines benefited from an EU windfall but suffered from Treasury influence which resulted in second-hand rolling-stock having to be used until new trains could be afforded. Expenditure approval to infrastructure upgrades required cross-border cooperation, while bus priority had to be supported from the revenue account. John accepted a similar secondment during rail privatisation but this time there was less partnership, with the PTA role retained for only the first round of franchises.

The campaign to save the Settle and Carlisle Line provided a welcome distraction. Was this as it appeared a main line with no purpose or a rural link with high social value? The BR closure proposal was flawed, omitting one TUCC area and BR themselves set about developing the line rather than continuing its rundown. An effective grassroots campaign drew a record number of objectors, and the Councils along the route jointly financed social, economic and engineering appraisals which confirmed the allegation of wanton neglect. An attempt at privatisation having proved abortive, the line was reprieved for continued operation by BR as the experts but supported by a community-based development company and Friends group. Now it is perhaps Britain's best performing rural railway.

Back on the buses, political issues influenced operation of a partnership demand-responsive bus service from a PTE booking centre. A Homerunner service for women in Bradford was limited by union concerns. Metrocard and Saverstrip offered a single family of tickets, but the operators led disintegration. The UK's smartcard proposals linked to ITSO proved very frustrating, and while technology leads on passenger information, paper timetables too have their place. A particular strength of West Yorkshire is its bus stations, which prove that quality pays dividends.

John believes that public transport modes should be grouped as "shared mobility". The objectives are efficient movement of people and goods in the best way, with recognition of walking and cycling. Car-sized solutions are for car-sized problems, and the private car is appropriate for many journeys, with shared-mobility solutions making best use of resources for journeys from mobility hubs and into centres.

The DalesBus network, developed for ramblers following local authority cutbacks, shows what can be done with contributions from public bodies and business, being an integrated network linking all available transport resources to support the community and economy while reducing carbon emissions. Improved digital connections and efficient community-based travel planning and brokerage promote modal shift and active travel, with over 600 possible vehicles (less than 50 of them buses) and hubs at shops, tourist information centres and cafes - but the intended community transport partner was lost.

John concluded by sharing with us the eight principles that in his view ought to weigh the balance. Public transport and shared mobility are key to cleaner, healthier communities. We should not forget air quality when dashing to carbon reduction. Euro VI diesel and gas buses are still the cleanest fossil-fuelled road vehicles and have even been demonstrated as community air cleaners! Personal electric vehicles are not the answer, they still take up disproportionate space. Public transport must rank alongside cycling and walking as priority modes, and all stakeholders must be involved in roadspace allocation. We must build new development around efficient and effective public transport and shared mobility. And we must watch and learn quickly, both nationally and internationally.

We are not yet where we need to be, but the wheel is still turning. We now have Bus Service Improvement Plans and the upcoming possibilities of Great British Railways, while carbon reduction and air quality are effective drivers as our population increases and moves to the cities. Important legislation has been enacted on Quality Bus Partnerships, traffic management and bus services, while we have Levelling Up in England with planning reform to come. There remains a need to crack congestion, but the first priority must be continuance of Government support while post-pandemic stability is achieved. The London model of bus contracts has been broken by lockdown-derived pressure on funding and by the politically-based view of the network, posing the question of where the buck stops between Mayor and Secretary of State. John hoped that his successors would live in interesting times!

John's presentation can be viewed by clicking on the link below:

"South to North and back again, reflections of a renegade transport co-ordinator" (PDF format, 6.2Mb)

Report and photograph by John Yellowlees.

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