Chamber calls for in-region transport improvements

A new report from the North East’s leading business organisation calls for improvements to public transport within the region, as argued by this website, and makes no mention of the high-speed, inter-city rail projects that are at the centre of current political and media attention – though the accompanying media statement does (see below).

 Focusing from the outset on local needs within the region, the report from the North East England Chamber of Commerce (NEECC) opens by stating: ‘We know that public transport plays a key role in the North East: connecting people to towns and city centres, education and job opportunities making the north region an attractive place both to invest and live in’.

The report says: ‘Everyone in our region must be able to access high quality employment and training opportunities, regardless of their background or personal circumstances. This is vital for the wellbeing of both individuals and our future economy. Having the transport links in place to allow people to access these opportunities in the North East is essential’.

Transport needs to aid economic recovery by ensuring that city and town centres remain a hub for shopping and other activities, says the report, and by making regional attractions accessible to visitors.

The report focuses, among other issues, on digital innovation to give passengers better information about transport services, and on the contribution of public transport to decarbonation and a green recovery.

While calling for investment in rail infrastructure, the report’s only reference to mainline rail services is to the East Coast Main Line and to other rail lines inside the region, and then it is linked to the need for good local connections. There is no specific mention in the report of either high-speed rail between Birmingham and Leeds (HS2b) or to the trans-Pennine Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) between Manchester and Leeds, currently the subjects of a high-profile campaign by northern newspapers.

The report says: ‘We need to see investment in rail capacity across the North East to ensure that we have the space for frequent and reliable local connections. At the Chamber we have been campaigning for investment in the East Coast Main Line to help create enough space for both local and national services. We have also supported investment in the Durham Coast route to help improve journey times and station redevelopment at Darlington and Middlesbrough to improve rail capacity for the Tees Valley area. The reopening of the Northumberland line will help to create improved sustainable connections from Northumberland through to Newcastle.

‘But further and continued investment is needed. That is why the publication of the government’s integrated rail plan is a key opportunity for the government to invest in the North East’s infrastructure and commit to the levelling up agenda. Without this much needed investment our region’s potential will continue to be held back by out-dated rail infrastructure’.

Marianne O Sullivan, NEECC policy adviser, quoted on the organisation’s news hub, adds the wider, high-speed rail context. She says: ‘A transport revolution will only occur through coherent, sustained investment across local, regional and national infrastructure. We are therefore very concerned by the reports that the eastern leg of HS2, Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) and upgrades on the East Coast Main Line may not happen.

‘Increasing capacity in the northern rail network will be crucial to addressing so many challenges that we face as a nation, including the levelling-up agenda, supporting businesses and in our efforts to decarbonise our economy. We need government to be ambitious in its “build back better” programme and commit to investing in truly transformational projects for the North’.

*The North East England Chamber of Commerce’s ‘Transport Report’ has been produced in partnership with the law firm Womble Bond Dickinson and Go North East.

COMMENT

Irrespective of what is in the Integrated Rail Plan to be announced tomorrow, and the wider debate about high-speed and trans-Pennine routes, many of the improvements sought in the NEECC’s report could start to be achieved if the North East had access to the £500m or £600m from the Intra-city Transport Fund which North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll has said is just waiting to be picked up by the North East – if its seven local authorities will do a devolution deal.

Significant transport improvements will also be achieved if the North East Joint Transport Committee (JTC), representing the seven councils, gets the £804m over five years that it wants for its bus service improvement plan. While this funding is not explicitly tied to devolution, there is little doubt that a deal would enhance the JTC’s chances of accessing the money.  

The NEECC report’s emphasis on local and regional transport improvements to get people to town and city centres, education and job opportunities is in line with the priorities supported by this website. The accompanying statement’s reference to HS2 and NPR looks like an afterthought.