South Yorkshire mayor Oliver Coppard: Good public transport possible with investment and political will

Railways starved of investment for 70 years, and buses and trains that cost too much and lack reliability.

Tuesday, 10th May 2022, 4:44 pm
Updated Tuesday, 10th May 2022, 4:45 pm

Those were two of the issues that Star readers challenged South Yorkshire’s new mayor Oliver Coppard on when he met them at a Star event held at Marmaduke's on Cambridge Street today.

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Labour’s Oliver Coppard declared new South Yorkshire Mayor

His solution is to take public transport back under public control, and for South Yorkshire to fight for a fair share of Government investment.

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South Yorkshire mayor Oliver Coppard says good public transport possible with investment and political will

Andrew Oldfield, a member of the Star readers panel at the event, said he thought Sheffield was a big railway city that had been starved of investment since 1954, and the only city that had lost its electrified rail link. He felt the integrated rail plan had important things missing, such as a lack of east to west routes.

Woodhead tunnel

He highlighted the need for Penistone to have its rail links improved too, and told how he hoped Mr Coppard could open the Woodhead tunnel, because without it, Sheffield would continue to trail behind Manchester and Leeds.

Mr Coppard said: “If we’re going to grow our communities, it’s about opportunity. It’s about having those opportunities in your life to go where you want while also living at home. People should not have to move out of Penistone or anywhere in our communities in order to get the job they want, or take up the education opportunity they want, or make sure that they’re going to see their friends and their family. They should be able to do that through public transport.

Star readers debate with the new mayor of South Yorkhire Oliver Coppard. Pictured is Andrew Oldfield

"Particularly with the cost of living at the moment and petrol costing what it does, it’s so important to grow that public transport network, to make sure people have those life opportunities, but also, with net zero, we are asking people to make a huge change in order to drive down carbon emissions.

"We need to do that in a positive way. If we can get the public transport network right, there’s no reason why people won’t get back on the train. People want to get the bus, they want to get about not using their car, but they don’t have the opportunity and nowhere is that more evident than rural or semi rural parts of our region. Sheffield is surrounded by green belt. Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham are quite rural places.

Investment into the north cut

Star readers debate with the new mayor of South Yorkhire Oliver Coppard. Pictured is Gabby Holmes.

“We’ve mentioned the Integrated Rail Plan. It’s really important. It’s really important we push forward with that. But the Government is playing sleight of hand when it comes to the money.

“What they've done is, over the course of that plan, they’ve cut the investment going into the north, not expanded it, and because of that we’re going to have problems going forward, until or unless the Government recognises the scale of the challenge and invests in our communities in the way that we deserve.

“Yesterday I wrote to Boris Johnson because he said that they want all those things to happen. They said they want local transport outside London to be more like the public transport they have in London. I used to live in London. It would be no great shakes for me to take a tram, a train, underground, electric bike, a cable car if I wanted, to get about that city.

“Here in South Yorkshire we just don’t have that same opportunity so when you look at the scale of the challenge that they’ve outlined for the next 400 weeks, we have passenger numbers that have gone down by 60 per cent on the bus, since deregulation, in 1985. In London, they’ve doubled, and they’ve doubled because the transport network is so much better. When you build it, people want to use it, so we need to get on and do it.

Star readers debate with the new mayor of South Yorkhire Oliver Coppard.

"When the Government is prepared to invest I want us to be a partner in that. I want us to be working hand in glove with Government whenever possible when they are delivering for South Yorkshire, and when they’re not, I’m going to be absolutely holding them to account."

He said in 1954 it took 52 to 56 minutes to get to Manchester from Sheffield on the train. Today in 2022, it took exactly the same amount of time.

More investment in South Yorkshire

He added: “In London, they got £18.7 billion to open Crossrail, an underground train line running right across the most congested part of real estate in the whole of the country and yet they’ve managed to deliver that while we’ve been starved of investment. That can’t carry on. We have to make sure we get more investment and opportunity. It’s not OK.”

He said none of the challenges were unsurmountable. The current situation had been the result of political choices over the last 40 years for all the various governments, and the region had to make sure Government heard what was being said, and South Yorkshire had to work with them to deliver.

Star readers debate with the new mayor of South Yorkhire Oliver Coppard.

Mr Oldfield said there needed to be a proper strategy to develop what was England’s fourth largest city.

Alex Wilkinson, aged 19, of Sheffield, said he felt buses were not reliable, with too many turning up at once.

Mr Coppard said he was asked about buses wherever he went. He said it was obviously something people cared about as it affected them day to day. He said he thought it would take some energy to fix, but thought it was achievable, by putting them back under public control across the region.

He said: “It’s what they do in Manchester. We have different challenges because it’s different geography, but in order to get there, investment from Government is needed, and the political will to push it forward.

What would public control of buses in South Yorkshire mean?

“It won’t be a silver bullet. Just because we run them versus bus companies running them doesn’t mean they automatically get better. But it does mean we have the ability to challenge and change things when they’re not working for communities. It shouldn’t be about profit.”

Mr Coppard said the key was to grow the number of people using the buses, because at the moment, a lot of people chose not to get the bus because they thought they may be late for work. It was important to show people they could get the bus to get where they wanted and back on time.

The network needed to work for people, not just revolve around money, he added. It would require investment from Government and needed to be done quickly. He said it was a priority for him.

One in four buses fail to turn up on time in South Yorkshire, he said.

Gabby Holmes, who lives in Rotherham and works in Sheffield, said she recently went to Manchester and found the train ticket for a month was the same price as a ticket for a week in South Yorkshire.

She said: “It was insane. I would pop on the train every day.”

She said when she left work, a train left at five past, not long enough for her to get to the station. Then the next one was at quarter past, If she missed that she had to wait an hour, a problem in cold and wet weather.

Cancelled trains

She had encountered occasions when she had met friends after work, to then find the 9pm train had been cancelled, and her train did not get her back until 11.30pm, when she was supposed to be back for 9.30pm. She did not feel safe on the train and had to walk home from the station, getting home after midnight.

"That is a concern,” she said.

Mr Coppard said the solution was having an integrated public transport network but there were challenges involving companies talking to each other in order to integrate, so passengers could get one bus and then have five minutes to get onto their train.

"It’s one of the reasons you want to bring buses back under public control, so you can integrate things and make them work collectively together,” he said.

On the ticketing side, he said: “It’s mad.

"If you try to plan your journey in advance and look for the ticket you want to buy, to get the best value for money, forget it. It’s just so hard to navigate. Making it much simpler is something I’m going to be pushing the bus companies to do. In London there is one fare. Tap on, tap off. It’s so much simpler and that is because their public transport network is under public control. It’s integrated, it’s cheaper, it works for people, the times work for people, there is a night time network.

"All of this stuff is possible. We just need the investment and the political will here. With those we can move things forward and move them forward quickly, and that is my job and it’s what I want to make happen. It needs to get better.”