Nick Forbes: Unlocking success through transport in the North East

Nick Forbes, the leader of Newcastle City Council, says better transport links are key to unlocking economic potential of the North East

Newcastle City Council leader Nick Forbes
Newcastle City Council leader Nick Forbes

This Saturday I’ll be putting on my cycle helmet and joining hundreds of other cyclists to take part in the Big Ride.

It’s a celebration of the quiet revolution that is sweeping the country, as more and more people, having discovered the health benefits of cycling get on their bikes.

More than 200 enthusiasts of all ages are expected to cross our iconic bridges from Newcastle to Gateshead in a spectacular demonstration of their love of cycling.

The cycling community is becoming increasingly influential because they are passionate about their mode of transport and their ambition to make our towns and cities safe spaces for cyclists.

As lead member for transport on the North East Combined Authority, I am passionate about cycling - but also about busses, trains, cars, planes and ships.

When they operate efficiently they are an important driver of economic development both regionally and nationally.

If the region is to thrive it is essential that we get our transport right.

Good connectivity is the key to success.

The North East needs better connections to London in the South, to Scotland in the North and to markets in Europe, the Far East and America.

Transport investment creates jobs. Look at Newton Aycliffe, where 900 are expected at the Hitachi train making factory, with hundreds more in the local supply chain.

Artists impression of the Hitachi Newton Aycliffe facility
Artists impression of the Hitachi Newton Aycliffe facility
 

Transport is the glue of our daily lives, getting adults to work, children to school and goods and services delivered on time.

When it goes right it brightens up our day, when it goes wrong it makes us feel angry and frustrated as anyone stuck in a traffic jam will testify.

By improving transport we are achieving great things in the North East.

With greater investment from Government we can do a whole lot more.

The excitement of the Scottish Referendum has ignited the call for devolution – not just north of the border but throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

If we are serious about rebalancing our economy and spreading London’s economic success we need better connectivity in the form of faster and more frequent train services that link Newcastle and the region, not just to London, but also to the other great cities of the North such as Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Sheffield, creating an economic powerhouse unlocking so much potential.

HS2 will deliver huge economic benefits and development opportunities.

I am a big supporter, but I am also impatient.

The region can’t wait 15-20 years for success.

It is imperative the region exploits the early opportunities.

North East companies need to be involved in the design and build, not only of the network, but the architecture, the trains, the stations and the bridges.

The opportunities presented by the biggest civil engineering project of a generation are truly endless.

As well as HS2, I am also campaigning for improvements to the East Coast Main Line – our primary freight and passenger connection.

A train on the East Coast Main Line in Northumberland
A train on the East Coast Main Line in Northumberland
 

Investment in the line and HS2 are entirely complimentary and can’t be an either/or.

Although the HS2 tracks will stop at Leeds, the trains will continue onto the East Coast Main Line.

It will be a missed opportunity if savings in journey times are lost when trains switch from a modern track to an old one.

That is why I am arguing for greater investment in the line, and the reopening of the Leamside Line from Pelaw to Tursdale in Durham reconnecting Washington to the rail network providing extra capacity between Newcastle and Northallerton to enable us to fully realise the transformational potential of HS2.

While high speed is a potential game changer for the North East, we cannot underestimate the importance of improving rail connections at a regional level.

We are the cradle of the railways and history has blessed us with a valuable of rail lines, which I want to see developed, improved, and in some cases brought back into use for passenger transport.

Reinstating the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line would immediately improve connectivity to South East Northumberland, linking people to jobs and giving employers an added incentive to locate there.

The Durham Coast line is a valuable link between Tyneside, Wearside and Teesside for carrying freight and passengers - but it is also in need of greater investment to make it more attractive for the communities who live along it.

Categorised as one of only eight national hub stations outside of London, Newcastle Central Station is the principal gateway to the region.

Anyone who has recently walked through it couldn’t fail to appreciate its transformation; its improved retail offer, its light and airy portico with lots of additional space and busy cafes.

It will give passengers a great first impression of the region and the city, especially when extensive improvements to pavements and roads are completed next year.

We are linking the station to the historic Stephenson Quarter which will open up part of the city that many people didn’t even know existed, underlining once again the intrinsic connections between transport and economic activity.

The £7.8m refurbishment of the Metro Station at Central Station will complement the current work to renew our much valued Metro system and a region-wide smart ticketing programme will make it quicker and more convenient for people to change between different mode of transport.

For too long the region’s major roads have suffered from congestion resulting in slow journey times and delays.

The A1 western bypass in Newcastle
The A1 western bypass in Newcastle
 

Traffic flows on sections of the A1 Western Bypass are in excess of 100,000 vehicles a day - it’s one of the most congested roads in the country which is not good enough for a route that connects the North East with London and Scotland, and at a regional level Newcastle and Gateshead to Washington and the Tyne Valley.

Major improvements, proposed in our City Deal, are now underway between junctions at Lobley Hill and Coal House but we must do more to eliminate other bottlenecks.

The A19 is equally important for the region’s ports, our largest employers and areas designated as Enterprise Zones by our Local Enterprise Partnership.

We are working with the Highways Agency to ensure the delivery of two key junction improvements: Silverlink junction in North Tyneside which is crucial for access to Cobalt Business Park - the UK’s largest office and business park – and Testos junction in South Tyneside which is important to the operations of Nissan – one of our key exporters.

The importance of Newcastle Airport to the region’s economy cannot be understated with its many direct links to European airports such as Paris, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Madrid, and the Middle East with the lucrative daily flight to Dubai.

It is still our intention to establish a trans-Atlantic route to the United States which will allow the region’s businesses to build on their trade links and open up new markets in North and South America.

The North East is the only region in the UK to be a net exporter of goods so we must do more to improve our road networks to the Ports of Tyne, Sunderland and Blyth.

Restoring the direct ferry link from Norway to North Shields in partnership with investors remains a key aspiration.

Transport is not just about getting from A to B, it is fundamental to our economic success as a region.

Modern transport systems that enable us to get around on time and in comfort do not just improve our quality of life, they send a message that we are open for business.

They attract investment and jobs and are fundamental to growing a strong North East economy.

The wheels are turning on our transport improvements but there’s so much more to be done.

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