The Soviet Union had a rule that any urban area that reached a million people had to have an underground Metro system. This went alongside a developed network of trolleybuses and trams that served most cities, which of course had its gaps and failures – there was nothing in the USSR that did not. Yet ‘1 million = Metro’ was such a strong rule that it was open to abuse by ambitious local authorities.

In the 1960s, the city council in Yerevan, which had been lobbying repeatedly for a Metro despite having an urban population of less than half the magic figure, received a delegation from Moscow. Although a supposedly autonomous soviet socialist republic, Armenia couldn’t build a Metro without the capital’s permission, cash and resources. Yerevan’s city council accordingly organised enormous traffic jams to keep the Moscow Nomenklatura stuck for hours on their way from the airport to the city hall, and insisted that this proved that Yerevan would be in chaos by the time it had reached a million inhabitants. The government were sufficiently impressed, and since 1981 Yerevan has had a gorgeous, if currently somewhat dilapidated underground Metro network. Public transport in Britain is administered in a similarly centralized manner, but is more miserly in spirit.

According to the EU’s planning project ESPON, there are twelve urban areas with over a million inhabitants in the UK – Greater London is in a category of its own at 10 million, but Greater Manchester, the Birmingham-Coventry-Black Country and Leeds-Bradford-Wakefield-Halifax conurbations all have over 2 million people; at over a million are Glasgow, Merseyside, Tyne and Wear, Nottingham-Derby, Southampton-Portsmouth, Cardiff and the South Wales Valleys, Bristol and Sheffield.

Of these, none outside London and Nottingham has a fully integrated public-transport network where buses, trams and trains are planned and owned by the same body, and only London, Newcastle-Sunderland and Glasgow have true Metro systems of the sort you will find in cities and conurbations of their size in France, Germany, Italy or Spain. Some cities have trams, usually integrated with old railway tracks, such as Nottingham, Sheffield’s grandly named Supertram, Manchester’s Metrolink and the West Midlands ‘Metro’ between Birmingham and Wolverhampton. Liverpool and its satellites have an extensive S-Bahn-style network, Merseyrail, built in the 70s as a replacement for the dismantled Liverpool Overhead Railway; operators try their best to hide it from the tourists, presumably because they might expect better.  

To find such a failure in provision elsewhere in Europe, the only obvious comparison is Dublin (the Republic has inexplicably copied almost every foolish planning decision made in Britain since 1922). Elsewhere, you have to look quite far – the big cities of the former Yugoslavia are the nearest equivalent, where a decade of war in recent memory and a total economic collapse provide a better excuse. One of the less-discussed possible consequences of the coronavirus is that the already rudimentary British public-transport systems may soon go bankrupt.

Where they exist, these urban-rail networks have lost between 80 and 95 per cent of their custom since the start of March 2020. In Britain, where urban rail and Metro systems are funded largely out of ticket receipts and advertising – most around the world are funded by government grants – this has led to mayors like Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham raising the possibility that their systems will have to be abandoned. As a result, a bailout was organised for England’s urban-rail and tram networks (somewhat inaccurately called ‘light rail’) in May. Some money has been thrown to the Tyne and Wear Metro (a superb system, built in the 1970s as a part of T Dan Smith’s ‘Brasilia of the North’), West Midlands Metro, the Metrolink, the Supertram, and Nottingham Express Transit.

A similar bailout was later agreed for Transport for London, which had deliberately onerous strings attached. These were designed to humiliate Sadiq Khan, whom the government appears to consider a prime enemy after the vanquishing of Jeremy Corbyn – a telling obsession, given his centrist politics. As bankruptcy still loomed, a further bailout of TfL followed in October, after some grandstanding between Khan and the government, which initially planned to force a series of draconian fare hikes, before executing one of its trademark U-turns.

It is of course an odd time to talk about extending public-transport provision, given that local governments have at least temporarily been encouraging people not to use it, but to cycle or walk instead. But we still know there is only one plausible approach to ensuring city and town dwellers can move around in an allegedly soon-to-be zero carbon age – not just by cycling and walking, even less by buying electric cars, but by taking tubes, trams and trolleybuses, segregated from cars and roads. The cities that have lowered their emissions furthest are precisely those that have the most extensive, efficient, frequent and cheap transport networks.

The fact that there are so few of these in the UK is the consequence of the micromanagement of all infrastructure from Westminster – an Act of Parliament is, preposterously, required in order to fund a tram line – intersecting with a ruinously complex, expensive and wasteful system of contracting and procurement.

Local authorities can be criticised for a great deal, but the paucity of public-transport provision in the UK is not for want of cities trying to get funding for something more ambitious. Glasgow has repeatedly, over many decades, begged for money to extend its one-line 1890s Subway; such an extension has never been agreed, let alone commenced. In the 1970s, proposals for a Manchester Metro were thrown out by the government – the fact that the city’s public spaces are clogged up by what are basically railway platforms for the Metrolink’s heavily engineered tram-trains is a direct result of this. Most of the networks outside London, Newcastle and Glasgow date from the 1980s and 90s, and were attempts at putting back a little of what was lost in the 50s and 60s, when the Beeching Axe – wielded by a ‘modernizing’ Tory minister, Ernest Marples – slashed suburban lines, while tram networks were torn out to make way for buses and, mainly, cars.

The South Hampshire conurbation, where Southampton and Portsmouth, the two densest cities in England outside of London, have had to contend with a Tory county’s objection to any expansion of their local-authority boundaries, have had two proposals rejected in Parliament. A slightly goofy Monorail proposal was thrown out by Thatcher, and, much worse, a serious, costed and extensive Metro network which would at last have properly connected this interminable sprawl, with a line gradually being built westwards from Portsea Island to Southampton, was vetoed by Gordon Brown’s Treasury and replaced with a bus running in railway cuttings between Gosport and Fareham.

New Labour talked a great deal about public transport, but Brown seems to have had an animus towards urban rail and trams, spiking plans for Liverpool and for Leeds, whose transport is probably the worst of any big city in Britain. The latter’s problems were compounded under Cameron and Osborne when a truncated trolleybus, which would at least have given Leeds transport of the quality of, say, Sloviansk, went to a public enquiry and was thrown out in 2016. Some of this hostility derives from an early New Labour report on urban transport, which argued that buses should play the major role in expanding public provision. While their importance is considerable, refusing to back pretty much anything else was strikingly short-sighted – even before one considers the way buses are run as private fiefdoms by private companies, seldom integrated with trams and trains.

Yet what did get built sometimes became cautionary tales, making the situation yet worse. Only two new systems were commenced under the Blair–Brown governments – Nottingham Express Transit (NET, modishly), a good, publicly owned tram-train which is partly funded by a surcharge on car parking; and Edinburgh. This was a scandal in Scotland, as cost overruns and ineptitude on the part of its contractors meant that the system came in at half the planned length and thirteen years late; its expense has become notorious, though the single line that now exists is pleasant and popular. Le Havre’s recently constructed light-rail/tram system, longer than Edinburgh’s, with more stations and a 500-metre tunnel, took three years to build, at a cost of £347m – less than half the price of the Edinburgh system.

The enormous expense of building infrastructure in the UK has been as prohibitive as the Treasury’s refusal to invest outside of London and Manchester. It is often claimed this is due to labour costs, but the French counter-example makes this obvious nonsense. The labyrinthine public-private contracting systems that have been dominant in the UK since the 1980s are the real culprit. In this context, Manchester, Nottingham and Sheffield can be proud of what little they have.

One of the many possible interpretations of the profound shifts in electoral politics in the North and Midlands – dramatically instantiated in the 2016 Brexit vote and the December 2019 Tory landslide – can be derived from public-transport provision, or the lack of it. The cities, towns and suburbs covered by the London Underground, Merseyrail, NET and the Tyne and Wear Metro mostly voted Labour in 2019; but an electoral apocalypse hit the poorly served outer towns of Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and West Yorkshire.

Leigh, for instance, the Greater Manchester town that saw the largest overturning of a Labour majority in the country, held by Labour since 1922, is almost completely cut off from Wigan, Salford and Manchester except by unreliable and slow buses. Dudley, not far from the centre of one of the largest urban areas in Europe, is treated by government and residents alike as a self-contained provincial ‘town’. The‘left behind’ cliché has a very concrete meaning in places like this.

Britain is clearly being polarised between London – plus a handful of similar places with property booms and bankers, such as Manchester and Edinburgh – and everywhere else. The entrenched character of the current culture war rests upon people believing bizarre things about the people who live down the road, and upon inculcating a sense of parochial resentment in places that are in reality dense urban areas. The possible collapse of the urban-transport networks was clearly not planned by this government, and it is unlikely that they will be allowed to fail permanently. A situation in which they rust away, offering a skeletal service to ‘key workers’ (or the ‘metropolitan elite’, depending on the audience) is highly plausible. This will only aid a politics based on pettiness and paranoia.