The major transport decisions that could get the North East moving

The business case for North East transport improvements has never been stronger. Adrian Pearson looks at what we have won, and what we still need

Are we still in the slow lane?
Are we still in the slow lane?

Just before Westminster packed its bags for the summer holidays, the Cabinet Office pushed out a series of press releases set to line the way for hard-hat photo opportunities for months to come.

Local Enterprise Partnerships were handed millions of pounds for various regional growth schemes, and North East transport was among the big winners.

The headline list makes clear the cash is there to help build the way towards jobs, as the Cabinet Office stated when it revealed funds would go towards a direct link from Newcastle Central Station to Stephenson Quarter, which will serve as a driver for wider regeneration; investments in the A19 and A191 to improve a link associated with major residential development, expansion of the employment sites at Quorum and Cobalt business parks; and a carriageway improvement scheme for traffic movements at Lindisfarne Roundabout, providing improved connectivity to the Port of Tyne.

While much of the £110m so far identified for the next two years is unavailable until mid-2015, it does finally bring the prospect of relief for some of the region’s most pressing transport concerns.

Cash injection could see an end to motoring misery as traffic builds up on the A1
Traffic on the A1
 

Among those few schemes to see work start before the next General Election, in the North East at least, is the A1 Western Bypass upgrade.

This will see just under four miles of the A1 widened to three lanes in both directions – an additional 3½ miles to what was previously planned, meaning the Western Bypass will be improved from the Coal House junction up to the Metrocentre junction, not just from Lobley Hill to Dunston.

As well as widening the A1, a new 0.33-mile parallel link road will be built adjacent to the main line A1, for north and southbound traffic, between Lobley Hill and Gateshead Quays. After that, the region will wait at least a year until more signs of major upgrades become apparent, with the Silverlink roundabout among the first on the A19 to benefit from measures designed to keep traffic flowing.

And the A1 north of Newcastle, the poster child of North East road projects, remains on a long, long list.

At present, the only hope for it is that Chancellor George Osborne includes it in the long-term announcements expected to be made in his Autumn Statement.

The challenge facing the Government is obvious. Transport spend per head is £2,700 for London, but £5 per head in the North East, according to research by the IPPR North think tank.

A big part of that problem is that when it comes to roads, the Government predominantly hands out cash for projects based on congestion, rather than economic growth.

Simon Hobson Ian Mearns MP for Gateshead
Ian Mearns MP for Gateshead
 

Gateshead MP Ian Mearns has raised this issue several times in the House of Commons, warning that it leaves the North East in a downward spiral.

Most recently, Mr Mearns called on the now Leader of the House, William Hague to address the issue with a Government debate.

He said: “Given the location of (Mr Hague’s) very scenic and beautiful constituency, he may be aware of the importance of transport infrastructure expenditure on the prospects for local economies.

“Given that Northern Rail and Network Rail do not have an investment programme in the next five-year control period for anywhere north of York, may we have a debate on the importance of transport infrastructure expenditure in generating economies, particularlyin places like the North East?”

A slightly more blunt assessment of the rail issues facing the North East came from former Durham MP Hilary Armstrong, when the baroness asked in the House of Lords for reassurance that the Government “understand that there are great northern cities that lie north of Leeds?”.

Her concern was prompted by High Speed Rail, a £50bn project which, under current plans, doesn’t come to the North East.

Under current plans, the line goes from London to Birmingham and then further north towards Manchester and Leeds. Past that, trains have to travel on existing lines.

As she told the House: “The North East is never mentioned, yet the country depends on the North East for manufacturing output. We have the only mainline railway on which running times have become slower over the past 10 years, not faster. It looks like the Government is trying to cut us off from the rest.”

And that is only half the problem with high speed rail. The other is that it will actually reduce services up the East Coast to Scotland.

Because the East Coast line is only two lanes past Northallerton, by 2030 there will not be room on the line for freight, existing intercity services and the high-speed line.

Instead, high speed trains will run up only as far as Newcastle, replacing intercity services, while those going to Scotland from London will be sent down the West Coast.

Network Rail planning documents show plans are already being considered for what to do with the spare capacity those frees up, including a stopping service from Newcastle to Scotland.

East Coast train at Newcastle Central Station
East Coast train at Newcastle Central Station
 

The North East Local Enterprise Partnership told the Government the best way to solve this would be to reopen the Leamside line, a railway line running past Nissan’s Washington HQ and ideal for unpopular freight services.

Government response was less than inspiring, with just a promise that the Department for Transport will consult better with the region.

But even before that comes up, rail presents two more pressing problems for North East decision-makers; both East Coast and Northern Rail services are set for yet more change.

On the East Coast, the Government wants the service back in private-sector hands before the general election, even if it has returned more than £200m to the Treasury while in public hands.

Ministers say the new franchise will result in faster services, but the latest consultation shows there are other benefits which could be lost.

Early-morning services from Northumberland look likely to be reduced, as will later departures from London to the county.

The situation is not much better for Northern Rail.

The Campaign for Better Transport has warned that a Government consultation on the future of Northern Rail and TransPennine Express looks set to do little to improve east-west links to and from the North East.

They say the plans as they stand give only a vague indications of when the outdated 30-year-old train diesel Pacer train will finally be replaced, raising the possibility that rail operators will not be forced to make much-needed improvements.

In its consultation document on the new franchise, the Government makes clear that it will accept limited rolling stock improvements if the cost would mean money diverted from other services, and the entire process is based on a Government plan of firms hopefully doing more but definitely getting less from the state.

There is some hope in sight. Mr Osborne last month announced he hopes to create a Northern Powerhouse to rival London.

Key to this is a suggestion, as yet unfunded, of High Speed Three, linking the likes of Manchester and Leeds. It is unlikely Newcastle will feature in this, if past evidence is anything to go on, though improvement to transport across the Northern regions does bring some benefit to the North East.

HS2/PA Wire The proposed HS2 rail link
The proposed HS2 rail link
 

A better opportunity to address some of the issues will come in October, when the City Growth Commission reports. Chaired by former Goldman Sachs asset manager Jim O’Neill, this body has already said that the UK economy is being held back as officials in Whitehall keep control of local transport and infrastructure decisions.

In an initial report by the Commission, Mr O’Neill warned that meeting Mr Osborne’s ambition would require significant change from the Government.

The report, based on hearings in Newcastle and other cities, says Metropolitan areas like Tyne and Wear must be given a bigger say over their own future.

The commission found that the UK loses billions of pounds every year as a result of poor, overly-centralised decision-making that fails to encourage greater links between cities.

Plans for a new high-speed rail network must be improved so links from the North are prioritised, the commission said.

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