Calling for an infrastructure to match the region’s ambitions

Policy: Jonathan Walker, the Chamber’s assistant director – policy, states a strong case for improving the region’s rail connectivity and urges North East businesses to get on board with a new campaign aiming to make it happen

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The North East. Birthplace of the railways and a region rightly proud of its rail heritage.
But heritage doesn’t get your goods to market or connect your business to new opportunities across the country.

The rail network still plays a vital role in supporting our region’s businesses, yet its capacity to enable further growth is limited.

The East Coast Main Line (ECML) is a vital artery for North East England; carrying commuters, tourists, business travellers and freight. Unfortunately, this artery is narrow and increasingly clogged.

Between Northallerton, Newcastle and Berwick there is only one track running north and one running south. Crammed onto these lines are inter-city trains, local services and slow-moving freight.

If you’ve ever looked out of your train window and wondered why it has slowed to a crawl, chances are you’re stuck in the middle of this congestion.

Of course, you may be fortunate enough to rarely experience this. On the whole, we do enjoy good connectivity north and south (east-west is a different story, which I’ll come to later). But such is the fragility of the network that it only takes a minor issue to have major repercussions.

Capacity issues on the line are already constraining growth. With a predicted increase in demand for long-distance rail services in the years to come, this fragility is likely to be exposed even further.

Significant upgrades to the line are needed to ensure it can both continue to serve the needs of our businesses and act as a catalyst for investment and regeneration.

That is why the Chamber is launching a major campaign to secure that investment and ensure that Government and Network Rail place ECML at the top of their list of priorities.

The Fast Track East Coast campaign will highlight how valuable rail connectivity is to our businesses and our region; showcasing the firms that rely on ageing infrastructure to meet clients, travel between sites and move their products, as well as raising awareness of what needs to be done to preserve and improve the connections in and out of the North East.

This isn’t about who runs the trains, but about ensuring that the quality of the infrastructure matches the ambitions of our region.

You might wonder why this matters to you. It matters because our businesses need better connectivity to other parts of the UK. While the service to London is good, few would argue that journey times and frequency to places such as Manchester and Birmingham are where they ought to be.

Both HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) are essential to remedy this situation and we continue to be ardent supporters of both.

But ultimately both of these schemes will join the East Coast Main Line near York; continuing their journey to the North East on existing rail lines.

Quite simply, we won’t see much benefit from HS2 or NPR without investment closer to home. Improving ECML is a quick win for both of these projects and will enable the North East to maximise the benefits they will bring.

This campaign also matters because investment in our key infrastructure is a major driver of regeneration and helps to place us on the radar for those who may want to set up their business in the North East or move here to work or study.

We can already see how HS2 is acting as a catalyst for wider investment in Birmingham and other areas on the route. We can’t afford to be left behind.

Major regeneration schemes have been announced for Darlington and Middlesbrough stations. The former to realign the station, partly in preparation for HS2 services, the latter to increase capacity for direct services to London on ECML. More capacity on the network will also open up the opportunity for more frequent local connections.

Plans for further investment in Newcastle Central Station have also been made public; modernising the facilities and unlocking access from the key Stephenson Quarter regeneration site.

If we are to capitalise on the huge potential of these projects, we must ensure the basic infrastructure serving them is fit for the next century.

Finally, the investment in ECML also matters to those who rely on some of the smaller stations in our region. Capacity issues on the line will continue to place pressure on the viability of services to places such as Morpeth and Alnmouth unless money is spent to allow the right combination of express and stopping services to run side by side.

We must be realistic. This campaign won’t achieve any overnight successes. The timescales involved in rail investment mean we’re pushing for ECML to be at the top of the list from 2024 onwards.

But the decisions to make that happen will be taken soon. Unless we make some noise on this issue, there is a real danger that we’ll miss out for another decade. We cannot allow that to happen.

We’ll be working with partners, stakeholders and politicians across the region to make the case for this investment, but the most powerful arguments will come from the businesses to whom it matters the most.

We need you to tell us how and why rail connectivity is important to your business and your plans for the future;
we want your stories about the benefits infrastructure spending brings to your local area; and we want you to help us share our message far and wide so that nobody in Whitehall and Westminster can claim they didn’t know what we wanted.

As we have seen so often in the past, the North East business community is incredibly powerful when it speaks with one voice. When we’re united behind a cause, people listen.

We’ll need contributions from businesses of all shapes and sizes from right across the region. We’ll be pushing our messages online, through print and social media. If you want to get involved, check out www.fasttrackeastcoast.co.uk or @FastTrackEC

With your help, we can make sure that the historic home of the railways is a place where our railways are fit for the future.