Businesses are poised to base operations in the North East but a “high class” and “reliable” rail service is key, a meeting on the future of the East Coast Main Line heard yesterday.
Around 80 companies are in talks with NewcastleGateshead Initiative to invest in the region, its chief executive Sarah Stewart said, and the future of the route from Scotland to London King’s Cross could be a deciding factor. Her comments came after the Government published a shortlist of three bidders hoping to run East Coast as part of plans to reprivatise it.
“We are working with 80 companies with projects that could translate into inward investment and bring new business to the area,” said Sarah Stewart.
“For them, regional connectivity is one of the key parameters they will use when taking a decision. The business might be based in India or the US or France, hence connectivity is critical.
“We need to overcome this perception that it takes forever to get to the North East, and having a really high class, reliable rail service which connects the region to the rest of the country reinforces the fact that this is a good place to do business.”
Three bidders have made the Government’s shortlist after the East Coast franchise was put out to tender last year. FirstGroup has been shortlisted, as has a joint bid from Eurostar and French firm Keolis, and another from Virgin and Stagecoach.
East Coast is due to return to a private sector firm in 2015, despite protestations it has improved under public ownership since 2009. It has returned £600m to taxpayers and customers have reported better satisfaction ratings. The Government says it will give the three groups a formal “invitation to tender” next month, after which they will be given at least three months to submit their bids.
The Future of the East Coast Main Line event at Newcastle Civic Centre also heard from Newcastle City Council leader Coun Nick Forbes, who said: “It’s not just ensuring we continue to have a line which offers us economic competitiveness, it’s important we have a line which offers great customer service.
“So we could be on the verge of another golden age of rail travel. Passenger numbers are up, satisfaction levels are up, and - although fares are also up - there is a push to invest in rail once again.
“Along with the other leaders of the UK’s core cities, I’m an advocate of HS2, but I have always made clear that HS2 needs to be seen alongside investment in the current network, not instead of it.”
He added: “Here in Newcastle we are putting our money where our mouth is, and investing in our vital rail connections. With our partners, we are making a multi-million pound investment in transforming the Central Station and the surrounding area.
“Passengers heading northwards into Newcastle will not just be able to enjoy the stunning views over the water, but also a magnificent sweeping gateway through the station into Newcastle - one of the best entrances to a city anywhere in the UK.”
The meeting also heard from Heidi Mottram, Northumbrian Water chief executive and regional chairwoman of the CBI, who stressed how important the route was to support businesses already operating from the region.
David Robinson, managing director of Tees Port, said the speed of upgrades to the service was essential for freight, as North East ports account for 10% of total rail traffic, transporting 45 tonnes of cargo each year.
Graham Botham, principal strategic planner for Network Rail, also spoke on planned infrastructure improvements for the route worth £500,000 over the next five years.