North East Councils make case for rail improvements

27 January 2014

The Association of North East Councils regards transport and connectivity as being of key strategic importance the North East, providing essential links to London, Scotland and to key cities or centres of economic activity.  In this context, we have consistently advocated for a whole network approach to the development of High Speed Rail in Britain in order for the benefits to be felt evenly across the country.  Local authority leaders in the North East have, over the past five years, maintained the view that conventional and high speed rail needs to link large urban centres of population in order to enable them to maximise their  assets, improve their economies, create economic balance and fully contribute to national productivity.  The North East, the only area of the country with a positive balance of trade, has a wealth of innovative industries, strengths and assets, and is well placed to make an enormous contribution to the national economy.  The capacity exists for this area of the country to play a much greater role in UK growth and efficient transport connections and investment and improvements to the infrastructure are vital to seize this opportunity.

Improved links between the North East and Edinburgh and improved connectivity to the Leeds City Region and to the Midlands and to London will bring major economic conurbations closer together and stimulate further economic growth.  Over the past five years, ANEC has adopted a clear position in relation to high speed and conventional rail, through strongly making the case for a complementary approach as part of a coherent strategy for the wider rail network.

In the context of HS2, ANEC member authorities are concerned at the lack of any current legislative guarantee to extend high speed rail to the North East, though we welcome further consultation and engagement with the HS2 team and DFT as the Government considers its proposals.  We are, therefore, seeking from HS2 Ltd and from Government a clearer exemplification and firmer commitment to benefits that will accrue to the North East.  In this regard, we welcome dialogue on the inter-operability of HS2 and the conventional track, the benefits to the North East of released capacity to the classic network arising from the proposed line of route for HS2 as far as Leeds, and the timescales for this area of the country to see real and tangible improvements both to the East Coast Main Line and arising from HS2.

ANEC has made a robust submission to the consultation on the re-franchising of the East Coast Main Line.  Within this, we highlighted the need for high quality, reliable and punctual ECML services, vital to our connectivity and for the future competitiveness and prosperity of the North East.  We emphasise the need for early improvements on the route and consider that the franchise period can provide real scope for the successful operator to invest in better service quality, punctuality, performance and passenger experience. Increasing capacity, higher speeds and shorter end to end journey times are key issues for the North East.  Station and capacity improvements at Newcastle Central and Darlington are also a priority.  

We also highlight the importance of the ECML as a key economic driver, not just in relation to passenger rail services, but with an important role to play in supporting the development of freight to and from the region, including links with major ports in the North East.  In this regard, it was encouraging to hear you emphasise recently that freight is an important element of HS2 and Network Rail’s timetabling planning, particularly in relation to released capacity.

Given the aspirations and considerations outlined, we have concerns about the lengthy timescales involved in implementing high speed rail and whether it will eventually be extended to the North East.  In this context, ANEC member authorities wish to continue to engage in the HS2 debate but have clearly stated that for the North East, conventional rail improvements on the ECML have a particularly crucial role to play in the economic growth and prosperity of this area.  As has been recently confirmed in HS2/DfT Strategic Case and Strategic Alternatives documents, improvements are needed to existing rail routes in the short to medium term to deliver benefits well in advance of completion of any full high speed rail network, which we are conscious is a twenty year vision.

North East authorities are of the firm view that investment in high speed should not be at the expense of the conventional rail network.  Since the planned high speed network is predicated on having a limited number of stopping points, it will be essential to ensure that improvements in local connectivity are planned and implemented in parallel to, and in advance, of high speed rail development such that the whole of the North East can share the benefits.  We are keen to ensure that in the context of Network Rail looking holistically at hubs and spokes that where there are opportunities and constraints, there is an opportunity for us to fully engage in discussions to maximise those opportunities and address or alleviate constraints.  Ways of increasing capacity north of York will be very important to us in this capacity.  Rail interchange improvements at Darlington and Newcastle are also particularly important to the North East.

ANEC welcomes future opportunities for dialogue with DfT, HS2 and Network Rail that will enable us to reinforce the key issues from a North East perspective and to hear how options for delivery of high speed rail and incremental improvements and investment in conventional rail can benefit this area of the country.  As we have over the past five years of the debate on high speed rail, we are willing to play our full part in ensuring that our best interests are represented, for the benefit of our economies, citizens and communities.