Review: The Future of Transport & Mobility roundtable discussion

Charlie Spargo's picture
by Charlie Spargo

A group of transport industry leaders came together for a conversation hosted by digital technology consultancy Netsells on the future of the sector with a focus on digitalisation and sustainability.

Hosted at Colony Jactin House in Manchester on November 17th, the morning discussion was chaired by Prolific North Editor David Prior and brought together brand representatives to tackle a range of important topics in the industry.

They spoke about Net Zero targets and the wider topic of sustainability, connectivity, innovations, and much more in the broad conversation.


  • Brannan Coady, CEO, Netsells
  • Danny Vaughan, Head of Metrolink, TfGM
  • Emma Antrobus, North West Director, Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE)
  • John Egan, North West Regional Lead, Progressive Energy
  • Judith Eastham, Head of Business Development, TES Ltd
  • Steve Smith, Managing Director, TES Ltd
  • Keith Whitmore, Chairman, Manchester Tramway Company
  • Luke Purcell, Senior Digital Marketing Manager, Northern Railway
  • Neil Walmsley, Director of Planning & Advisory, Arup
  • Pete Bradshaw, Director of Sustainability, Manchester City FC
  • Sophie Hill, Regional Integrated Agency Manager, Hearst UK
  • Will Maden, Research Director, Miralis Data

David Prior (Prolific North) introduced himself and host Netsells - the digital consultancy, with an expertise in transport - before handing over to Brannan Coady (Netsells) to thank everyone for coming and explain a bit more about the business.

After the panel had introduced themselves, Prior asked about the impact of COVID on digitalisation of transport.

Danny Vaughan (TfGM) said that after they dropped to passenger numbers as low as 5%, Metrolink is back up to around 70%. The big transformation they’ve seen is getting a better understanding of customers on a real-time basis through contactless. “We know our customers better than we've ever known them as a result of COVID.”

Asked by Emma Antrobus (ICE) about their newest line, out to Trafford Park, Vaughan said that it’s grown rapidly having opened the day after lockdown. It probably has a lower passenger base because fewer people live along it - but they are now looking at the marketing message of promoting it a line for employment and leisure.

Integration and connectivity

The conversation turned to creating an integrated transport network and how that might be enabled. Vaughan (TfGM) said Metrolink’s had its decade of expansion and now the city is focusing on buses and bikes and how to integrate them all - but the only way is through customer touchpoints, made seamless through technology.

Coady (Netsells) asked about getting private organisations to work together, and Vaughan agreed that that’s why Manchester isn’t there so far. The city is shifting towards the London-like model which enabled Oyster and contactless use, and the opportunities are within open data.

And Manchester now has the chance to invest in a much more modern system than London’s and be at the forefront.

Coady (Netsells) said what can be frustrating is private businesses not being able to agree on commercial interests is preventing this necessary connectivity.

Is policymaking getting in the way of innovation, asked David Prior. Coady (Netsells) answered that perceived ‘ownership’ of the customer relationship by private businesses is the hold-up - despite the fact that what customers would appreciate is a connected mobility system where trains, flights and taxis could all be booked.

Neil Walmsley (Arup) - who recently returned to the UK having spent years in Dubai and Singapore - explained the challenges the latter had with mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) solutions. Recently, a solution called Zipster launched supported by semi-private rail operator SMRT, but failed quickly.

They did everything right and had the right partners, but not enough consumers in the market bought into it, and they couldn’t get a critical mass of uptake.

Technology can't outpace the consumer, suggested David Prior.

The fact is people mostly interact with transport the way they’ve always done, said Vaughan (TfGM) - they don’t plan in advance and choose their mode accordingly. It’s something the whole transport sector needs to get to grips with - people don’t necessarily want to interact with an app, it all has to be part of everyday life.

Will Maden (Miralis Data) pointed out that one of the clearest impacts is that people still want to travel and move, but items like the weekly season ticket are no longer valid. How do we move away from that model but continue to offer the benefits?

COVID has kick-started previously background projects like flexible tickets, added Luke Purcell (Northern Rail), where you can get three trips in a week, for example.

Cities, infrastructure and sustainability

David Prior asked the panel how extensive the impact in terms of town and city centres has been following lockdown’s move towards deliveries and supporting services.

Brannan Coady (Netsells), who is also CPO of parking marketplace YourParkingSpace (YPS), said roads were as empty as public transport through COVID. Car parks, for example, had to look at new revenue streams.

What’s more, YPS was able to make a significant effort into EV infrastructure, and at the moment discussion has arisen around car parks with different prices for EVs, or some exclusively for them.

Conversation turned to electric vehicles more widely. Will Maden (Miralis Data) said that EVs can still be a cheaper alternative to public transit - especially for those from less well-connected areas. And very importantly for some people, flexibility. Until the public transport system runs later and to more places, people are clearly going to choose to drive.

Will there be innovation in delivery vans and methods, asked David. Once again it's down to a lack of integration, said Maden - companies holding onto their data and refusing to share.

An issue with EV confidence isn’t necessarily range or convenience but the capabilities of housing stock in the North, said Emma Antrobus (ICE). If you don’t have off-street parking it’s a major challenge, and there will be people who live in the city who still need to drive, and live in a tower block where there aren’t enough charging points.

It’s a mindset adjustment, said Maden (Miralis Data), who has two EVs himself living at a terraced house with no off-street parking. You make the adjustment when you have the car as you have no choice. Another potential way to progress is getting away from owning the car itself - most are used for less than 10% of the day so we have enough.

Brannan Coady (Netsells), from the perspective of YPS, said that technology has now made the issue around car sharing easier - previously, services had been using existing council-run car parks, but the council hadn’t got the technology to share data like the availability of spaces.

Danny (TfGM) said that there is always a way for all to have their place - at one point he worked with West Yorkshire Combined Authority who didn’t want light rail because the future is in autonomous electric vehicles (AEVs), but ultimately mass transit holds the answer to reducing congestion, where AEVs wouldn’t.

Having returned to the UK, Neil Walmsley (Arup) noticed you can’t live without a car in the country as a result of urban density, which has a huge impact on these transport decisions.

Discussing delivery companies’ pick-up lockers with Neil, Maden (Miralis Data) said that from a sustainability and Net Zero perspective is terrible, because it encourages short journeys in cars to pick up.

On the other hand, said Branann (Netsells), their work with Amazon and Tesco has seen the delivery giant put pick-up lockers in hotels and supermarkets, so journeys can be combined - better overall.

Where does hydrogen fit into the conversation, asked Brannan.

It’s not one-size-fits-all, said John Egan (Progressive Energy). The view is that hydrogen's first role is in decarbonising industry, because that's the place it can make in-roads quickly - that sector is about a quarter of the UK's emissions.

There’s a lot of excitement with hydrogen but it’s not just about EVs or hydrogen, he added. The first area they see interest is in “back to base” services due to the limited reach of the energy source. Liverpool, he said, has just ordered 20 buses to run on hydrogen.

What’s more, the opportunity is there to make Manchester Airport the UK’s first hydrogen-connected airport.

What about the issue of greenwashing, asked Sophie Hill (Hearst). The climate crisis is humanity’s biggest challenge, said John (Progressive Energy), and tech solutions all come with drawbacks - nothing’s perfect. It’s about getting on and making quick improvements, we can have the biggest impact by making massive reductions in emissions quickly, rather than gradual reductions.

On a more local level, Pete Bradshaw (Manchester City FC) said the club builds and tries to operate in the most sustainable way possible. It’s a challenge as Manchester City has the highest level of people driving to matches in the Premier League, so they’re working with local providers to find solutions - including progressing towards a walking route towards the city centre.

By creating links to transport hubs, businesses along the route will also benefit, he said. The most important issues are reliability and affordability, and then fans and staff will choose not to drive all the way to the stadium, or not drive at all.

Speaking virtually on the panel, Keith Whitmore (Manchester Tramway Company) said a pattern was emerging. The leisure industry is rising and overtaking commuter travel - with heritage railways seeing 17% more passengers compared to 2019. This will be a challenge for the rail industry.

The changing pattern is something the transport industry must grasp, he said.

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