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10.06.19

A train journey on the Midland Main Line 15 years from now…

Source: RTM Apr/May 2019

Chris Hobson, director of policy and external affairs at the East Midlands Chamber, talks in detail about what travelling through the region will look like in 2034.

A mere 15 years from now, a description of a rail journey from London to Sheffield could include an explanation of how part of the journey will be clean and green under electric power and the rest will be driven by dirty diesels.

It might even reference glimpses of HS2 services that will zip past at speed on a dedicated electrified line occasionally running parallel to the Midland Main Line.

It’s unlikely the train operator will talk about the reduced efficiency of the rolling stock resulting from having to carry the extra weight of two motive systems, or the damage the heavier trains will cause to the track.

But this is the truth behind the decision two years ago by transport secretary Chris Grayling to leave a sizeable chunk of the Victorian-built Midland Main Line in more-or-less its original condition, condemning it to use rolling stock more attuned to the late 20th century than the 21st century.

In June last year, Mr Grayling was roundly criticised by the Transport Select Committee for announcing this decision on the last day of Parliament before the summer recess in 2017, preventing any debate in the Commons.

It was a decision received badly by businesses in the East Midlands. For the previous few years, the planned electrification of Midland Main Line had been on and off more often than a fridge light.

The Transport Select Committee, chaired by Nottingham South MP Lilian Greenwood, said the project was one of several that should be recategorised as ‘pending’ and restored to the Rail Network Enhancements Pipeline (RNEP).

As far as Midland Main Line was concerned, most of the preparatory work for the £1bn project is done, as is quite a lot of the physical work.

But Mr Grayling wasn’t to be swayed, and having shunted full electrification north of Kettering into the sidings, he wasn’t about to let it back out again – until somebody pointed out that it would be easier to plug it into the national grid at Market Harborough. Suddenly, an additional 12 miles of electrified track was a good idea.

But it makes absolutely no sense to most East Midlands customers – it just moves marginally the point at which they switch between dirty diesel and under-performing electric motive power.

There are trains on the market that can do the job, and they are 20th/21st century vehicles. But trains are used for decades. They undergo full refurbishment at about 35 years. That means we could still have 20th/21st century diesel trains on the Midland Main Line as we reach the 22nd century. And the message that sends to the rest of the world is that we are a backwater.

Think back to the opening of the Channel Tunnel, before HS1 – it was only 25 years ago. High-speed trains served destinations in France and Belgium. Those trains and the Eurostar were capable of running at 180mph – 300kph.

When London-bound Eurostar services got to Folkestone, however, their progress was governed by the local services and the average speed through Kent into London was a nerve-grating 60mph.

That’s how visitors will see the East Midlands 50 years from now. They’ll travel at speed from Paris or Brussels to London and then transfer at St Pancras to a relatively modern-looking train that will, comparatively, chug its way north.

It won’t matter that the East Midlands is the manufacturing spine of the UK, that Derby was once home to the biggest cluster of rail businesses in Europe, that Derby will have led three out of four industrial revolutions, that the region is home to world-leading advanced businesses – all visitors will remember is that the journey from London was slow.

They could choose to stay on HS2 services to Toton, but despite that service’s transformational impact on the region, it won’t deliver them to the hearts of Derby, Nottingham or Leicester.

The impact that will have on East Midlands businesses is hard to measure today. It will lead to negative preconceptions about the region as a whole and the businesses based here. It certainly isn’t going to act as an inducement to inward investment.

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