Sunday, November 18, 2007

Left in the slow lane

Column published in the Newcastle Journal on Saturday 17 November.


This week, as David Miliband set out his vision for the future of Europe, the South of England finally fufilled a part of its European destiny by gaining a high-speed rail connection to the continent for the first time.

Thanks to the new Eurostar terminal at St Pancras, travellers were 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 risked being left in the slow lane unless its transport connections were dramatically improved.

As the French might say: plus ca change.

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

As a result of their protestations, it was made a requirement of the Act that the regions, as well as London, would 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, rather, yet another in the long list of major infrastructure projects designed 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 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 who has continued 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 okay for Mr Martlew's constituents, but it will still leave the North-East's major conurbations cut off from the rail map of Europe.

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 most number of cars per kilometre of motorway in England - 17,343.

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," he wrote.

Graeme 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 in 1996, Tony Blair said it would be "a priority" for a 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 as a result of their £1bn-plus annual funding advantage.

Why is it so low a priority for national government? Well, partly because it is trapped in something of a vicious circle 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 a deal in return for The Journal's backing, they would immediately have been besieged by similar requests from every other area of the country.

In more than ten 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 the region's 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.

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Tom said...

Nice to see someone blogging about transport. I've got one or two points, though:

Firstly, the Regional Eurostars idea was sunk by low-cost airlines, which I believe serve the north east as anywhere else - the journey times are so astronomically faster by air that if RE had happened there'd be questions in the same Parliament that legislated for them as to why taxpayers money was being spent moving fresh air up and down the country. The world changed - high speed rail is competitive up to 4 hours centre-to-centre, but you can't get much beyond Birmingham-Paris/Brussels for that, The trains themselves have hardly been used at all, except briefly and ironically on the East Coast from London to Leeds and York. They're technically unsuitable for use on any other line in the UK, but have been used to test HS1.

Secondly, the position of the terminal next to Kings Cross is rather better for travellers from the north-east than Waterloo, so you're probably 50 minutes closer than at the beginning of the month - given ideal connections you can do it in six and a bit hours. Like I said first, though, you'd need to shave two or more hours off this to get to the magic competitive figure against air, and that's quite astonishingly expensive - you'd have to get the average Newcastle-London speed up to 250 miles/hour, which even TGVs can't do, topping out at 200, so even if you built a new line to current French standards air would still have the edge.

Thirdly, the East Coast line through Newcastle was electrified in the early 90s, which is a good counter to the suggestion that the north-east gets the rough end of the pineapple - for the entire decade the East Coast was running a 90s railway, the West Coast a 60s railway. There was also a substantial diversion (near Selby) built on the line in the early 80s which knocked a good bit off the time.

In short, as regards rail, the north east has had a good deal (better if Grand Central ever get off the ground with their London-Hartlepool-Sunderland services), and it's difficult to see how direct European connections could possibly be fast enough to make money without a technological breakthrough and a huge amount of cash.

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