Peter Lovering: If Northumberland is to prosper then it needs proper rail links

Northumberland businessman says we should be concentrating our efforts not on HS2, but on the East Coast Main Line

Martin Keene/PA Wire Nine out of 10 trains must run on time starting from spring next year
Nine out of 10 trains must run on time starting from spring next year

I am no rail expert but I feel that here in Northumberland we are being short-changed when it comes to rail improvements, especially as the powers that be in Newcastle seem determined to hang on to the coat tails of HS2.

I believe HS2 will do nothing for the North East, particularly as it will be nearly two decades before it reaches here, assuming it isn’t cut back during the intervening years.

Neither the Government nor the opposition have a national rail strategy, let alone one for integrated transport.

Decisions are being made piecemeal due to funding issues and more often, for political reasons to save the sacred cow that is HS2.

Indicative of this ‘on-the-hoof’ policy was when it was pointed out that there would be insufficient rail infrastructure to support services heading north from both the East Coast Mainline (ECM) intercity service, and the HS2 service from Leeds, something that should have been considered much earlier.

The decision has been made to reduce the traffic on the ECM and focus on HS2 services that will terminate in Newcastle.

Add to this the latest plan for the main route into Scotland to be via HS2 and the West Coast Mainline, and this will result in the ECM route through Northumberland becoming a forgotten line. There will be no intercity services north of Newcastle, and in time as a cost cutting measure, the line would likely be downgraded to support only local services.

While we are signed up to HS2 and put all our eggs in that basket, I believe only the minimum will be spent on maintaining the ECM, except between Leeds and Newcastle in preparation for HS2.

As far as I am aware, no proper study has been carried out to look at pragmatic improvements to the whole of the ECM, such as upgrading speed restricted sections. Reducing these would probably save more time than HS2 will ever save.

Peter Byrne An East Coast train at Newcastle Central Station
 

Moreover, off-the-cuff assessments from the Government “that it will take weekend working for 14 years’ to do the work are utter garbage.”

I firmly believe we need to disconnect from HS2 and leave it at Leeds, to concentrate our efforts on improving the ECM from London right through to Edinburgh, and to lobby the Government (and opposition) accordingly.

In addition, I concur with what Rachel Turnbull said in her article (The Journal August 25) in that improvements to transport infrastructure are needed to encourage economic growth and tourism. Indeed, isn’t this the whole premise behind HS2, now that some of the other justification for spending £50bn has been discredited?

HS2 will do nothing to improve rail infrastructure and lay the ground for economic growth in Northumberland. Infrastructure improvements are long overdue and we need them now!

If Northumberland is to increase in prosperity, then our towns need proper access to rail links, which, with the right local and intercity services, would increase tourism across the county, and south east Northumberland could become an industrial powerhouse.

Indeed, where else in the country would you find an urban area the size of the Blyth Valley (population c.81,000) without a mainline railway station?

I welcome the effort that is going into reinstating the Blyth & Tyne Railway (B&TR) line that will improve travel to Newcastle and Tyneside. This will increase the availability of labour to industries in Tyneside, but it also leaves the prosperity of the local area dependent upon the economy of Tyneside and beyond. I believe we need to be more proactive and provide the transport infrastructure that will encourage industry and businesses to move into the Blyth Valley, making it possible for it to increase its own prosperity.

North of Newcastle there are some bad bends with speed restrictions of 50mph, which need to be bypassed if the ECM is to be improved. If these bends remain, then they are likely to be used as the excuse to reduce future intercity services.

Simon Hobson A train pulls into the station at Morpeth in Northumberland
 

Therefore, I propose that the ECM should be diverted from the bend south of Cramlington Station and join up with the B&TR route somewhere near Bedlington, continuing through Ashington and on to Linton where it would branch off and continue north, connecting back to the original ECM route on the bend at Widdrington Station.

This will create a near straight line route, which is what had originally been planned.

What could be better for the economic development of Ashington and Blyth, which have much to offer companies looking to relocate, particularly low cost labour and industrial sites?

At the same time the existing link along the B&TR to the Port of Blyth should be upgraded, thereby opening up access to the port, which itself is an attractive proposition as a designated economic development area. There is also the existing line to the old Rio Tinto Alcan site at Lynemouth, which has much in the way of industrial facilities to offer incoming companies, as well as what would become a direct link to the ECM for their products.

In addition, local services in Northumberland are key to providing better access for tourists, but are a disgrace and in dire need of improvement.

For a start, the Pacer trains need to be replaced as soon as possible with new rolling stock and not cast-offs from the south. In addition, the routes and stopping points need to be expanded. Only then will more people use the service.

An example from my own experience illustrates the poor service; I travel to Berwick on business, catching the 08:58 intercity train from Morpeth, which takes about half an hour. However, the return journey is another story; the return train takes nearly three times as long, as it involves a change at Alnmouth from the intercity to the local service. If the local train service did not terminate at Chathill and continued on to Berwick, I’m sure there would be many more passengers using it, as well as me, especially if some of the other stations along the route, such as Belford, were reopened.

Without significant improvements to the ECM north of Newcastle, and to the intercity and local services that use it, Northumberland will remain a backwater, always living in the shadow of Newcastle and dependent on the Tyneside area for its long term prosperity.

Northumberland County Council and the Combined Authority need to recognise this and not be swayed by the lure of HS2; they need to fight for infrastructure improvements to the ECM that will support improved services, both intercity and local, which will lay the foundations for increased economic growth in Northumberland.

  • Peter Lovering, of Longhirst, Northumberland, director of BeemCar Ltd

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