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The cost that counts is the price of doing nothing

Source: RTM Aug/Sept 2018

When it comes to investing in connectivity in the Midlands, what matters most is not whether we can afford to finance our ambitions but whether we can afford not to, writes Maria Machancoses, director of Midlands Connect.

At the start of July, I stood in front of our partners, stakeholders, and government representatives at Millennium Point in Birmingham and launched ‘Our Routes to Growth.’ This report outlines how Midlands Connect is developing the infrastructure projects the region needs to prioritise in order to transform connectivity and catalyse a new generation of economic growth.

The optimism that day, from political leaders and transport professionals alike, was palpable. Successful regions are now recognised as crucial to the overall fortunes of the UK economy. It is similarly accepted that mobility and connectivity are essential to both regional and national prosperity. However, the one question the assembled media were unified in asking was: how much is this all going to cost? I gave each reporter the same answer: the cost that counts is the price of doing nothing. Given the importance being placed on the regions, surely we shouldn’t first be asking how much improving our transport system will cost, but instead start with quantifying the cost of doing nothing.

‘Our Routes to Growth’ includes our vision for the creation of a Midlands Rail Hub to futureproof the region’s rail network for generations to come. The plans will bring the East and West Midlands closer together, pulling an extra 1.6 million people within an hour of the biggest cities in the Midlands. The economic prize is huge: with just a few relatively minor strategic interventions, we can add £649m to the national economy each year by 2037.

What’s included in the Midlands Rail Hub?

If you regularly travel by train, like I do, you can too often find yourself on or waiting for slow, overcrowded and unreliable services. The Midlands Rail Hub proposals include space for 24 additional passenger services every hour across the Midlands. These faster, more reliable and more comfortable services could attract an extra six million passengers a year onto the Midlands rail network, freeing up more space on our congested roads too.

To achieve this, our plan is to double services every hour through Birmingham for trains to and from Nottingham, Leicester, Hereford and Worcester, and to reinstate direct services between Coventry and Leicester. There’ll be two extra services an hour between Derby and Birmingham, and one more hourly service between Lincoln and Nottingham. Our recommendations will vastly improve connections between east and west, with journey time savings of almost 20 minutes between Nottingham and Birmingham, and 25 minutes between Hereford and Birmingham. Quicker trains mean much better access to affordable rapid mass transit HS2 services, particularly for people in Herefordshire, Worcestershire, the south west, and South Wales who have previously been detached from them.

However, it’s not just about passenger services. With four of the UK’s five main rail freight routes passing through the Midlands, making space for freight is just as important to a fully functioning transport system and a diverse economy. With some relatively small and inexpensive interventions, the Midlands Rail Hub could create 36 new freight paths on the network, shifting the equivalent of 4,320 lorries from road to rail each day – five times the freight capacity of HS2. That’s enough extra space to carry another £22bn worth of goods a year on the railways.

Some of the physical interventions required to make the Midlands Rail Hub a reality could be completed by 2023, with the programme delivered in its entirety by 2033, in time for the completion of HS2. The necessary work includes longer and restored platforms at Moor Street, Snow Hill and Kings Norton; the construction of chords at Camp Hill on a reopened local line through Birmingham; improved junctions and signalling; and some minor electrification. As a result, the programme will support more than 100,000 new jobs, planned in major growth sites all over the region, and delivered across a range of industries in the next two decades.

As with any proposal, there will be a cost, the nuances of which can change and flex with time. But the benefit of the Midlands Rail Hub is that it doesn’t have to be an “all or nothing” initiative. It could be delivered in stages, at an affordable, incremental cost, as opposed to a single ‘Big Bang’ investment. And, like any major infrastructure investment proposal, Midlands Connect will never make a recommendation unless we believe the benefits greatly outweigh the costs.

Once complete, and in tandem with the revolution in rail travel that HS2 services will bring to the Midlands, these measures will provide a solution for the rapidly rising numbers of passengers using the region’s rail network every day, and huge forecast growth in new professional services jobs in our major towns and cities.

Transport secretary Chris Grayling recognises the significance of Midlands Connect’s plans. Marking the release of our report, he said: “These proposals will capture the extraordinary economic potential and ambition of the Midlands Engine – focused on driving forward growth, creating new jobs, and delivering better journeys for passengers across the region. It is excellent to see Midlands Connect is committed to maximising the significant benefits to connectivity and capacity HS2 offers, as well as ensuring we capitalise on the biggest modernisation of the rail network since the Victorian era.”

All of these plans combine to help a wider Midlands Engine ambition of adding £54bn to the Midlands and UK economies by 2030, powering post-Brexit growth and benefitting both the region and the UK as a whole. With such big prizes on offer, we can’t afford to stall on securing a funding package for these improvements.

Productivity in the Midlands is currently below the national average – and without strong, connected regions, we miss out on a strong, connected national economy. This region has the potential to be a leader on the world stage. However, without long-overdue investment in our transport network, we will not be able to grow and support the UK economy.

With a potential boost to the UK economy of £649m each year by 2037, the scale of this opportunity is starting to be grasped by local and central government, as well as by industry. The question is not whether we can afford to put these plans into action, but whether we can afford to put these plans off any longer.


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