Freight for the Borderlands' untapped potential

Source: RTM June/July 2018

John Stevenson, MP for Carlisle and the government’s Borderlands Deal Champion, discusses the untapped potential for growth in the Borderlands, arguing that investment in rail must go beyond simply assigning a monetary value to the numbers living in an area.

The railways have a proud history in the north of England. George Stephenson’s Locomotion No. 1 carried the first passengers on a public railway line in 1825 from Stockton to Darlington. The transport of coal from collieries in the north formed the lifeblood of the Industrial Revolution, in which the north’s great cities like Manchester and Leeds became some of the wealthiest and most advanced centres of innovation in the world.

Freight and passenger transport is as important today for driving economic growth and improving quality of life, but there has been an imbalance for many years. Spending on rail in London has far outstripped spending in the north for a long time, but there has recently been a marked improvement in rail spending in the north.

A lot of this has been down to investment in Transport for the North, but there is a risk that another imbalance will develop again: within the north. The combined populations of Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford and Manchester alone are almost 2.5 million, which dwarfs anywhere in the Borderlands. Undoubtedly, serious investment in the urban north is long overdue.

However, the main reason why I’m excited about the potential of the Borderlands project is that it seeks to look past raw population data. The Borderlands is a strategically important location for the UK. Heavyweight investment in the region could have a profound effect not only on the Borderlands, but on the entire country and its relationship with the rest of the world – which is a particularly important consideration in light of our upcoming departure from the EU.

The Borderlands is the narrowest point in the United Kingdom. It is also one of the few places in the UK with a direct rail link between the West and the East Coast mainlines. These two mainlines are the twin backbones of the country’s rail network. They are relied upon heavily for both passenger and freight transport. However, at present, rail in the Borderlands has room for significant improvement.

For example, a route between Galashiels and Carlisle is still at the campaign stage; the Victorian Waverley route has been closed since 1969, and its reopening would provide a relief route from Edinburgh, providing the Borderlands with its second direct connection between the West Coast and the East Coast mainlines; and the Carlisle to Newcastle line currently takes longer than travelling by road. This is a seriously wasted opportunity that deserves much more attention.

The geography of the Borderlands makes it the best place in the UK to cross to the opposite coast. Therefore, siting yourself in the Borderlands means both the east and the west coasts of the UK are more accessible than perhaps anywhere else in the UK. For a business, this is particularly important. Nationwide, access from a single location is not practical across the vast majority of the country. Likewise, access to the majority of the nation’s largest ports from a single location could not effectively be achieved from many locations other than in the Borderlands.

As we approach the post-Brexit world, our national trade strategy should be placed particularly high on the agenda. Being an island nation, the UK must make the most of its many ports, especially as we make a pivot towards a more global, outward-facing trade policy. A particularly important aspect of maximising our ports for international trade is ensuring that each of them are as well connected to the national transport infrastructure as possible.

This means better-connected coasts. In other words, this means better-connected West and East Coast mainlines. Improvements to rail in the Borderlands would better integrate the ports in the north east and eastern Scotland into the UK’s economy, as this would make the western half of the UK much more accessible. With around 90% of global trade transmitted via sea, the UK’s maritime capability will play a crucial role in ensuring the country prospers in the post-Brexit world.

It is not only the location of the Borderlands, at the centre of the UK, that makes it perfect for a role as a national transport hub;  it also has the space for rapid expansion. The region has some of the lowest population densities in the country. It is a region that could absorb significant development and still maintain its character. The Borderlands could be made much bigger without compromising the natural beauty of the landscape that makes the region so unique.

As the Borderlands champion, my ultimate ambition is to see opportunities and living standards increase across the region.

To do that, we need economic growth. To ensure significant growth we need to draw on our assets and our unique selling points. One of the key unique features of the Borderlands is where it is – right in the centre of the UK, with easy access to both major rail transport corridors. This is an asset of national significance. As the UK moves towards Brexit, we must be particularly mindful of how best to reach markets in all corners of the world. Providing an accessible, fast corridor from the west coast to the east coast is one way this can be delivered. This is what better rail infrastructure in the Borderlands can achieve.


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