Russell Imrie: £9bn reasons to invest in east coast

KEY rail link can add huge value to UK economy, but we must put our money where are mouth is says Russell Imrie

The East Coast Main Line is not just a key connector for the millions living along its route, it also has the potential to turn that entire corridor into a financial and business powerhouse. Picture: Jane Barlow

The East Coast Main Line is a vital communications artery for Scotland and the north-east of England. It connects with all points south and has the potential to generate up to £9 billion for the UK economy – but only if this vital resource is developed to maximise links between the cities and industrial centres that it serves.

That is why, as vice-chair of the Consortium of East Coast Main Line Authorities (ECMA), I am inviting local communities along the line to join with Holyrood and Westminster politicians in calling for investment in the East Coast Main Line (ECML) now to boost the Scottish and north English economies.

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Yes, £9bn. It’s a big number, but it’s real and achievable. The communities and businesses along the East Coast Main Line already contribute £300bn per year to the UK economy – that’s more than London – and Scotland’s contribution and benefit is hugely significant.

Picture by JANE BARLOW. 12th October 2011. Forth Bridge magazine feature. Pictured is an East Coast mainline train crossing the bridge.

What’s more, this could and should be even higher. ECMA has commissioned research to examine the potential economic benefits of investment in the ECML’s infrastructure and services. The results are staggering.

The key finding is that, by providing additional services and connecting more of the key industrial centres and sectors along the line, the UK could receive an extra £5bn.

When the benefits of a potential High Speed 2 rail link to the north-east of England – which has a knock on benefit for Scotland – are included, this rises to £9bn.

This investment is about connecting people and businesses in Scotland and across the UK to jobs.

From a political perspective, what is equally important is that if we act now we can start to realise this potential before 2020.

The research means that, for the first time, we have a complete view of the growth potential of economies linked by the ECML. It provides a strong foundation and objective viewpoint on the benefits to the communities and economies of the East Coast – and the wider UK economy – of investment in the line.

On the ground, this would mean major improvements to the ECML in Scotland as well as major changes south of the Border that would improve connections to and from major cities in England.

Among other improvements to the ECML, we believe that the Scottish Government should prioritise electrification of the rail network to Aberdeen and Inverness, enhance rail track on the Highland main line between Perth and Inverness, and the track between Aberdeen and the Central Belt, Edinburgh and the Border.

We’re also calling for more direct high speed services to Scotland, with high speed services calling at both core and intermediate stations. This will reduce journey times for passengers between northern Scotland and Edinburgh and onwards to and from England.

But improving infrastructure and journey times is only one part of the investment we would like to see. The existing rolling stock also requires radical improvement. Trains serving the route should feature an “office-like” environment with free wifi, mobile device connectivity and space to work, meeting the needs of modern workers on the move; investment is also needed to ensure all stations on the line act as gateways to the economies they serve.

ECMA’s 41 members are working to secure this economic growth. We want communities and business leaders to sign up and back the Invest In East Coast campaign. By speaking clearly with one voice to governments in Edinburgh and London, we can ensure that we don’t miss this chance to boost the economy and better connect communities. We’re also working with Network Rail at all levels, as well as the East Coast operator Virgin Trains East Coast and will seek do the same with Abellio and Cross Country.

Like all areas of government spending, the rail network is under increasing pressure to justify investment. Outcomes are all important, so I can think of £9bn reasons why government should be prioritising the investment in the East Coast Main Line now.

Infrastructure investment is playing a key role in boosting the economy across the UK – the Queensferry Crossing, ThamesLink and Crossrail are all major pieces of new infrastructure that will deliver economic benefits.

We need investment now in the East Coast Main Line to ensure that we make this potential £9bn a reality. In Scotland, that will give thousands of businesses a platform for growth and ensure that we are in a strong position to move forward.

• Councillor Russell Imrie is chair of SEStran and vice-chair of the Consortium of East Coast Main Line Authorities.