Put our region in fast lane, Minister

NEW Transport Minister Rosie Winterton will today be urged to boost North-East prosperity by backing road and public transport improvements as she visits the region.

NEW Transport Minister Rosie Winterton will today be urged to boost North-East prosperity by backing road and public transport improvements as she visits the region.

Business leaders and MPs are calling for upgrades to motorway links, including action to tackle congestion on the A1 Western Bypass and dualling the route to the Scottish border.

Maintaining and improving rail links, particularly high-speed services to London, is another key priority alongside handing councils more powers over failing private bus services.

Government support for modernisation of the Tyne and Wear Metro is another crucial issue, with Nexus welcoming Ms Winterton’s announcement today of initial approval for new ticket machines that accept cash and credit cards, with £12.8m of central funding.

Today, The Journal publishes an open letter to the Minister in conjunction with the North-East Chamber of Commerce (NECC), with whom we fought our successful Go For Jobs campaign to stop the Highways Agency blocking job-creating developments in the region.

The Chamber’s chief executive James Ramsbotham said the region is enjoying greater prosperity and growing faster than any other part of the country – but said it shouldn’t rest on its laurels.

The letter says the North-East has the capacity to grow further, with Government help.

It says: “We believe your department can play a crucial role in unlocking that capacity through some strategic transport projects.” It says how the first priority is a North-South motorway through the region, which would be a vital route for the whole country, and for new trans-Atlantic flights from the North-East to link into global markets.

There are also calls for capacity constraints to be addressed on the key East Coast Main Line linking the North-East with London and Scotland.

Ms Winterton may also face questions over above-inflation fare rises and the £1.4bn premium transport giant National Express has promised to pay after winning a new East Coast rail franchise beginning in December – although the company has promised faster and improved services, and says it can pay the premium.

Tyne Bridge MP David Clelland said approval for new Metro ticket machines was excellent news, but stressed there a lot to be done – which would form part of today’s talks with the Minister.

The Labour MP added: “We hope she will see enough to realise just how much we need these improvements. From the problems with road infrastructure to the importance of upgrading the Tyne and Wear Metro, and not least the need to give local authorities more control over bus services.”

He added: “There is no number one priority here because they are all important to the region’s success. I would hate for her to go away thinking she solved one problem when there are other areas in need of investment. They are all so closely linked, and she will see that on her visit.”

The Department for Transport said Ms Winterton would be listening to local views, including on the local transport bill that includes plans for bus reform and overhauling how local transport authorities work.

She will be meeting MPs, including North-East Minister Nick Brown, councillors and industry representatives.

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ROADS – A1

UPGRADING the A1 to boost safety and the economy is an urgent matter for the North-East’s future, MPs and business chiefs say. The North East Chamber of Commerce has called on Gordon Brown to act over the A1 Gateshead Western Bypass, which operates at 167% capacity at peak times, to keep the economy moving.

The NECC also told Mr Brown capacity improvements on key corridors were vital.

Motorists are waiting for the outcome of a Tyne and Wear congestion study examining the potential role of road pricing and public transport.

Pressure is also growing over dualling the A1 to the Scottish border, with thousands signing an online petition on Downing Street’s website.

Tory Berwick parliamentary candidate Anne-Marie Trevelyan said there would be an “unquestionable” boost to regeneration and safety.”

The Journal’s Go for Jobs campaign also highlighted how the Highways Agency had objected to business and housing close to the route by using Article 14 orders.

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METRO

METRO chiefs have an improvement plan ready to go the moment the Government gives the green light for funding. Transport chiefs in Tyne and Wear have already delivered a £600m Metro Invigoration plan and are waiting for the Government to back the essential improvements.

Coun David Wood, chairman of the Tyne and Wear Passenger Transport Authority, set out the case for more investment.

He said: “Both bus and Metro can play a big part in tackling congestion and carbon emissions and supporting growth in our economy.

“Metro Re-invigoration, a £600m investment spread over 20 years, is vital to prevent the system failing in the next decade and to modernise it to meet the expectations of future passengers.

“Every £1 invested in Metro is worth several times that in benefit to the local economy through cutting congestion and getting people to work flexibly and easily, it’s a good deal.

“Government also needs to sort out bus services, which reach into every community in the region.

“The best way to do this is to build on the measures set out in the Local Transport Bill that would allow the PTA through Nexus to map and deliver a better local service for bus users.”

The announcement that Nexus has £12m to spend on Metro ticket machines was welcomed but regional transport chiefs have told the Government it must get behind the rest of the improvement plans.

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RAIL

ONE of the key issues on the rails is a high speed link connecting the North-East with Scotland and the South. Business leaders say a new line – or vast improvements – is vital to the region’s prosperity.

Tyne Bridge MP David Clelland said fast rail links to London were essential and may today raise the possibility of a new maglev line with Ms Winterton.

Ministers have rejected the 311mph technology, although supporters saying it could transform the economy.

Northumberland-based Alan James, of maglev champion UK Ultraspeed said a high-speed network was needed to link Scotland and the great Northern cities or the region risked being doomed to economic decline.

Ministers said last week National Express had been awarded the East Coast Main Line franchise from December. The company has pledged improved and faster trains.

Berwick MP Alan Beith warned ticket prices could hit travellers hard and “keep people in their cars” rather than promoting public transport and cutting carbon emissions, with some fares rising by up to 2.1% above inflation annually.

Association of North East Councils chairman Mick Henry said future services must meet the region’s aspirations.

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BUSES

ROSIE Winterton has been asked to look at funding for free bus passes, which threatens to cripple some councils.

When the DfT’s Concessionary Bus Travel Bill comes into effect next April councils will have to pay for every elderly or disabled passenger making a free journey from their patch - even if they do not pay tax there.

Nexus and the Association of North East Councils have warned the Government to hand out more money or risk forcing local authorities to cut other services to fund free bus travel.

Alnwick Council Leader Roger Styring said:

“We get a basic allocation and that has to do us, which is not good enough. What we really need is the Government to step in take the lead in providing free transport for the elderly.

“That’s a big wish and one that sadly we are unlikely to get.

“Overall there is not enough done to support transport, particularly rural transport.”

The minister will also be asked to look at giving councils more power over bus companies.

A draft local transport bill could see local authorities handed more control over bus timetables, a welcome move the minister will be urged to speed up.

Nexus PTA chairman David Wood said: “Government must untie the hands of the PTA and Nexus so it is able to set down contracts with operators guaranteeing frequency, fares and vehicle quality – and tied to priority schemes that would get buses through the traffic on time.”

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Letter to new transport Minister Rosie Winterton

Dear Minister,

WHEN you visit the North-East today, you will find a region that is enjoying greater prosperity than at any point in its history, and is growing faster than any other part of the UK.

You will also find a region that refuses to rest on its laurels. We are unashamedly ambitious about the success we can achieve and the part we can play in driving the UK economy, which was the motivation behind the award-winning Go For Jobs campaign.

One of the reasons for this ambition is our absolute certainty that the capacity exists in the North-East for us to grow further and faster. We believe your department can play a crucial role in unlocking that capacity through some strategic transport projects.

The first priority is a North-South motorway through the region. A blue line between London and Edinburgh up the east coast of the country would represent a vital strategic route, not just for the North-East, but for the whole of the UK.

An efficient rail service along the same route is an important counterpart to this, A very good service has been provided on the East Coast Main Line in recent years, but capacity constraints will become a problem over the next decade and these must be addressed.

In addition, the increasingly global nature of the economy now means that we in the North-East cannot just concentrate on our links to the rest of the UK. The new Emirates flights to Dubai from Newcastle International Airport will next month connect the North-East to markets to the east – we now need to match that with trans-Atlantic services from the region as quickly as possible.

This strategic infrastructure will give the dynamic businesses in the North East the chance to grow – and free up capacity for more to develop and contribute to UK plc. We look forward to hearing how it can be developed.

Yours sincerely

James Ramsbotham, Chief Executive, North East Chamber of Commerce and Brian Aitken, Editor, The Journal

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Ticketing revamp on Metro

METRO passengers will be the first to benefit from the transport minister’s visit as she approves new ticket machines and barriers.

During her day reviewing the region’s transport problems Rosie Winterton will announce £12.8m in funding for machines that will accept cards and notes.

The money comes after staff at Nexus asked the Government for £600m to upgrade the entire train system, including station and track repairs.

Ms Winterton said: “This upgrade will bring the Metro’s ticket facilities into the 21st Century.”

“Encouraging more people to use public transport, especially buses, is a key aim of the Local Transport Bill. “

Nexus director general Bernard Garner said: “This is just the first phase of our £600m bid to modernise the system and secure its long term future, but it is a significant step in the right direction.

Chairman of the Tyne and Wear PTA, Coun David Wood, said: “We will continue to stress our case to Government ministers for investment to renew and modernise Metro over the next 20 years.

“I am confident we are going in the right direction.”

The 249 ticket machines currently on the Metro will be replaced and barriers will be fitted at 13 stations: Airport, Central, Gateshead, Haymarket, Heworth, Jesmond, Manors, Monument, North Shields, South Gosforth, South Shields, St James and West Jesmond.

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