The UK, pioneer of the industrial revolution, is the birthplace of the modern metro system. From the London Underground, “that vapour-bath of hurried and discontented humanity”, as the designer William Morris once put it, which first carried passengers in 1863, to the Liverpool Overhead Railway, which ran between 1893 and 1956, the UK was ahead of the rest of the world when it came to city transport. 

This head start has been lost, however. Over the past 50 years, the UK’s investment in mass transit – a fast-paced system of trains or trams – within its cities has fallen way behind its western European neighbours, with the exception of London. 

In the 1960 and 1970s, while cities on the continent such as Marseille, Rotterdam and Frankfurt were building complex metros en masse, the UK was not. Following decades of failed plans, Leeds now has the ignominious reputation of being the largest metropolis in Europe without any form of light rail or underground, a “scandal” that then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged to “rectify” in his 2019 electoral campaign (with no result). 

How do UK cities compare to EU equivalents?

A simple comparison of western European metro maps puts the UK’s connectivity gap on full display, once again with the exception of London. 

Mass transit systems in Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool are significantly less extensive than those in Marseille, Rotterdam and Frankfurt (and most other similar-sized cities in France, the Netherlands and Germany). In particular, metro links in the centre of cities are much more limited in the UK, something that has more to do with underdevelopment than geography. 

It only takes a short drive through any of France’s largest cities, beyond Paris, to gauge how much better connected their city centres are. Little wonder, therefore, that the West Yorkshire Combined Authority (within which Leeds is the biggest city) is looking to Nice’s battery-powered trams for inspiration. 

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London’s public transport, on the other hand, is the envy of Europe. Is it any surprise, therefore, that Birmingham, Liverpool and (especially) Manchester are home to the UK railway stations with the most delays, while the capital does not feature on the list at all? Pre-Covid, train riders in the north of England were spending an additional 165 million hours on trains per year compared with people in the south east, which equates to around 40 minutes more per person every day, according to research from Manchester Metropolitan University. This was largely due to the fact that many rail systems in the north remain unelectrified, and are running on diesel. 

Mass transit systems or the lack thereof – in Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and Liverpool are living testimony to the UK’s regional inequality, which is among the worst in the developed world. Covid and Brexit have made matters worse. To date the government has focused on megaprojects such as HS2, connecting UK regions to London, but without inner-city connectivity, many city economies are at risk of further stagnation.

How did this come to pass? In short: while the British government ploughed vast sums into London’s transport, the rest of the country was left underfunded.  

A history of neglect and privatisation 

Across the UK, public transport has been deregulated and privatised under policies originating in the 1980s. However, London was treated as a special case, unique in having a government body responsible for public transport: Transport for London. The city also tends to have far cheaper public transport than the rest of the country and far higher levels of per capita funding from public sources.

“It is perverse that the wealthiest and most densely populated region of the country has retained a regulated public transport system with high levels of public funding and low prices, whilst poorer more rural areas have deregulated, privatised and expensive public transport,” writes Patrick Gill-Tiney, a fixed-term college lecturer in politics at St John’s College, Oxford.

In terms of public money spent on transport in the different regions of the UK, London has for many years received the most. In 2017, for example, the figure was £944 per person, followed by Scotland at £618. Conversely, the East Midlands received just £220, the North East £291 and Northern Ireland £302. More than 50% of the UK’s public money spent on transport is on the railways, 43.7% of which went to the capital (more than the city’s contribution to gross domestic product, which sits at about 25%, while the city accounts for just 13.4% of the UK population).

Explaining these patterns is difficult. “It is in part a feature of devolved government,” writes Gill-Tiney. “Public spending on transport in Scotland is high because the Scottish Government has chosen to fund it at higher levels than the rest of the country.” This accounts for some of the differences, but far from all, as local geographic and historic context also come into play. Northern Ireland, for example, never had as dense a railway network as the rest of the UK as railway construction started much later. 

However, whichever region is scrutinised, one point is clear: transport needs public spending. “If public transport requires support in London, the wealthiest and most densely populated region, then it is entirely fanciful to think that private initiatives will make up the deficit in the rest of the country,” says Gill-Tiney. 

Focus on the UK’s leading tier-two cities

The UK faces many socioeconomic challenges – as all countries do – but a core problem that successive governments have inadequately addressed, or ignored, is that London is too big, or to put it another way, the rest of the UK’s cities are too small.

Instead of continuing to pour public money into London, which widens that gap with all the others, would it not make more sense to bring parity to the other large cities in the country? “The idea of a Northern Powerhouse is a sensible one – the conurbations of Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield have populations roughly equal to that of London, but are isolated by woeful roads and rail links,” says Gill-Tiney.

An ambitious series of infrastructure projects to develop new transport links would undoubtedly improve the economies of all four cities (which are major economic players, especially as a bloc) through the attraction of more private investment and the reduction of north-to-south migration, which disproportionately leads to the young and educated leaving for the bright lights of London. 

“The prospect of a Northern Powerhouse Rail that develops new east-west train links is welcome, but needs to be backed fully [and] be based around significant and permanent increases in public spending on transport outside of London,” argues Gill-Tiney. 

In any case, today’s state of affairs serves as an embarrassing and daily reminder of the UK’s gaping (public transport) infrastructure gap between London and the rest of the country. How can any levelling up agenda be taken seriously if these issues are not redressed?