Nobody is solving our No 1 problem

THIS week, as David Miliband set out a bold vision for a “Europe” stretching from North Africa to mid-Asia, the South of England finally fulfilled its European destiny by joining the continental high-speed network.

THIS week, as David Miliband set out a bold vision for a “Europe” stretching from North Africa to mid-Asia, the South of England finally fulfilled its European destiny by joining the continental high-speed network.

Thanks to the new Eurostar terminal at St Pancras, travellers are now able to get on a train in London mid-morning, and arrive at the Gare du Nord in Paris in time for a late-ish lunch before hitting the culture spots.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch . . . yet another hard-hitting report warned that the North-East risks being left in the slow lane unless its transport connections are dramatically improved.

As the French might say: plus ça change.

It was always intended that the North-East would be linked to the Eurostar network. Back in the 1980s when the Channel Tunnel Bill first went through Parliament, it was a lively issue among MPs from the northern regions.

They succeeded in making enough noise about it to ensure it was written into the Act that the regions, as well as London and the South, should benefit from the Tunnel project.

A number of “regional eurostars” were subsequently ordered and built, but they were never deployed and the rolling stock was eventually used elsewhere on the rail network.

By the late 1990s, ministers no longer made any pretence that the Channel link would help the North. It became, instead, yet another in the long list of major infrastructure projects designed primarily to benefit the capital.

Making that continental link a reality now depends on the construction of a new high-speed link from the North of England that will link with the new St Pancras terminal.

Despite a marked shift of emphasis towards new investment in transport, the Brown government has refused to make this scheme a priority, and that seems unlikely to change within the next decade.

Carlisle MP Eric Martlew, a member of the Transport Select Committee, is among those continuing to lobby strongly for the idea, but even if it happens it seems overwhelmingly likely that it will be built up the West Coast.

That will be OK for Mr Martlew’s constituents, but it will still leave the North-East’s major conurbations cut off from the European rail map.

The region’s roads are faring little better. This week’s report by the Road Users’ Alliance became the latest to warn that the region risked economic isolation because of its low-grade road network.

It pointed out that the North-East has just 36 miles of motorway compared to 406 miles in the South-East, and the largest number of cars per kilometre of motorway in England – 17,343.

The report compared the road network in outlying regions like the North-East with those of Lithuania, Slovakia and Hungary rather than those of Germany or France.

That finding almost exactly echoed a report five years ago by the regional competitiveness experts Robert Huggins Associates. How little has changed in the meantime.

Then, of course, there is the interminable problem of the A1 dualling. A few weeks back, The Journal’s Graeme Whitfield revealed on his newsroom blog that this newspaper had considered a novel proposal to try to kick start the long-delayed project.

“In recent weeks we have been discussing the possibility of throwing The Journal’s support at the next General Election behind a political party – even the Conservatives – if they would pledge to dual the A1,” wrote Graeme.

He added: “We hadn’t made a decision on this, but today the Tories have come out and said that they won’t upgrade the road for 10 years at least, so that’s that.”

Perhaps the Tories deserve some credit for simply being honest. We have, after all, been here before with pledges to dual the A1.

In an interview with this newspaper in 1996, Tony Blair said it would be “a priority” for an incoming Labour government. What he didn’t say was how much or, more accurately, how little of one it would be.

The fact that five of New Labour’s seven transport secretaries have been Scots – Gavin Strang, John Reid, Helen Liddell, Gus Macdonald and Alistair Darling – only rubbed salt into the wound.

The Scottish section of the route has of course long since been upgraded courtesy of their inbuilt £1bn-plus annual spending advantage.

Why is the A1 so low a priority for national government?

Well, partly because it is trapped in something of a vicious cycle as regards the statistical case for the upgrade.

Its traffic levels do not currently justify the spending, say ministers, as a result of which the road remains unimproved, as a result of which fewer people use it than would otherwise be the case.

It is also partly because opposition parties dare not promise anything these days that resembles a spending commitment. Had the Tories agreed to that hypothetical deal in return for The Journal’s backing, they would immediately have been besieged by similar requests from every other newspaper up and down the country.

In more than 10 years of writing for The Journal, there has been no bigger single recurring issue in the region than the question of its transport links.

The whole case for the elected regional assembly eventually foundered, in my view, on the fact that it wouldn’t have had significant powers over transport funding – certainly not enough to dual the A1.

Yet for all the dominance the issue has exerted in North-East regional politics, it has seemed for most of that time as if the region has been talking to itself.

Will this week’s report finally signal a change of direction? At the moment, it looks about as likely as Tunisia joining the EU.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer