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The vision of England's Economic Heartland's Strategic Transport Forum

Source: RTM Feb/March 2019

Dave Hodgson, elected mayor of Bedford Borough Council and chair of England’s Economic Heartland’s Strategic Transport Forum, sets out his vision for the future of rail in light of the Rail Review, whilst highlighting the economic significance of the region.

As the sub-national transport body (STB) for the Oxford-Cambridge growth arc and surrounding areas, England’s Economic Heartland (EEH) has particular reason to welcome the Rail Review.

Our rail system has a fundamental role in helping realise what is one of the most exciting economic growth prospects in Europe – the Heartland’s ambition is to further strengthen our role as an internationally renowned hub for science, technology, and research; a place at the cutting edge of innovation.

The government has made realising this potential a national economic priority. But, as the National Infrastructure Commission warns, this can only happen with the right investment in infrastructure and services to support what are transformational levels of economic growth.

An effective and efficient railway, as part of an integrated transport system, is essential if the ambition we share with government is to be realised. That’s why the Rail Review is so important: it presents the opportunity to review whether the rail system is fit for purpose moving forward, making sure that our approach to the planning and delivery of investment in infrastructure and services truly supports the government’s aim of growing and rebalancing the UK economy.

It is therefore essential that the review does not become too inwardly focused. We need it to focus on identifying how best to realise rail’s contribution to providing improved travel choices, connecting people and places with opportunities and services, and doing so in ways that helps support the delivery of planned growth and net environmental gain. It mustn’t be seen as a discrete entity in its own right.

To ensure this happens, EEH is already working with the review team to help it understand the role of the STBs, and how our strategic role plays a key part in mapping out the expectations of rail within the wider transport system.

Indeed, government has encouraged the establishment of STBs on the basis that they are an effective forum for engagement on just the sort of strategic transport issues the review is now examining.

In our initial submission to Keith Williams’ team, we have set out the benefits of building on the momentum achieved by the STBs over the last five or so years, and the added value of working closely with them – both individually and collectively – as the review team develops its ideas.

Given government’s prioritisation of the Heartland, it is disappointing that – unlike other areas – there is no geographical representation for our region on the review’s Expert Challenge Panel: something that we have argued the review team should reconsider.

We believe it’s essential for there to be clarity in the review’s terms of reference which states that the rail system should be able to ‘address long-term cost pressures.’ If our aim is to provide more sustainable travel choices, then there may be a case for more investment in rail. For a region such as the Heartland, we need to grow the market share for rail if we are to realise its economic potential, improve lives, and achieve net environmental gain.

Our initial submission highlights four other strategic considerations that we believe the review team needs to address. Firstly, we have said that the critical role of the rail system in enabling the delivery of planned growth must always be reflected in developing the specification for passenger services.

We need to develop an approach that enables investment in new infrastructure and services to be better linked with planned growth, one that ensures that investment in rail is enabling investment that provides sustainable travel choices from day one of a new development; and we need to ensure that the benefits of investment in schemes such as East West Rail are taken into account when planning subsequent investment in strategic highway schemes.

Secondly, proposals for devolution of the rail industry based on the historic network of radial routes and services run the severe risk of perpetuating a London-centric system. Not only does this run counter to broader government ambitions to rebalance the economy nationally, it risks missing the opportunity afforded by East West Rail to create travel choices that better reflect the needs of the Heartland’s residents and businesses and avoid the need to travel via London.

We need our approach to the development of the rail system to be long term, and one which considers far wider issues of the transport system in enabling economic and housing growth. EEH as an STB has the capacity and capability to achieve a joined-up approach across individual transport networks so as to deliver a truly integrated transport system.

Thirdly, planning for and delivering capacity for rail freight should take into consideration wider public sector policy objectives. Moving forward, this may require the state being prepared to invest in strategic capability. For example, East West Rail has the potential to relieve freight movements into London, thus freeing up capacity for more passenger services – a key objective in the London mayor’s transport strategy.

The challenge currently is that investment in freight capacity is driven by market forces. We believe there is a case for the public sector to accept the need to invest on the basis of the wider public good derived from it.

Finally, we believe the review should examine the extent to which competition laws might inadvertently prevent the realisation of a truly integrated transport system. For example, potential bidders for franchises cannot include proposals to integrate local bus services to deliver an integrated offer to the public. In a desire to avoid creating monopolistic positions, we may be inadvertently missing opportunities to deliver the joined-up approach that will encourage greater use of public transport.

EEH is undertaking more detailed work with a view to making a further submission to the review in due course. We look forward to working with Keith Williams and his team over the coming months.

Let’s seize this opportunity for a more outward-looking rail system which goes beyond helping people get from A to B and instead plays a leading role in the realisation of the government’s key strategic priorities for the country.


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