LOCAL lobby group has vital role, writes Russell Imrie
An efficient railway network is vital to any sustainable transportation system. It can help take freight off road; reduce car dependency and – with modern high speed rail – reduce the need for air travel from Scotland to other parts of the UK; particularly London, by providing an affordable, fast alternative.
The East Coast Main Line (ECML) is a vital rail route, not only for South-east Scotland, but for the nation as a whole. For this reason SEStran is an active member of the consortium of East Coast Main Line Authorities (ECMA), which represents regional transport partnerships and local authorities in the area served by ECML from south-east England to the north of Scotland. Our aim is to work in partnership with other members to represent the communities served by the line; to encourage investment and maximise the contribution it can make to the economies of South East Scotland and the other regions on the route.
ECMA was initially an informal group of authorities who came together in 2012 out of a shared concern that the potential of the ECML was not adequately represented within the government’s decision-making process, or receiving the investment that it required. So far 35 councils have pledged ongoing support in 2015-16.
The ECML’s importance cannot be overestimated. It serves regions that contribute more than £300 billion a year in gross added value to the UK economy and which have major potential for growth in areas ranging from; finance and business, to life sciences and technology, tourism, oil and gas production, and manufacturing.
Independent research commissioned by the ECMA shows economies along the route could generate another £5bn in additional Gross Domestic Product (GDP) if sufficient improvements were made to the ECML and rail services along the east coast. Improvements would also generate increased job opportunities, practical social benefits for communities along the line and increased revenue. Overall, economic benefits that would accrue in the regions served by the line could be as high as £9bn, with the inclusion of the eastern arm of HS2.
To maximise the value of the ECML, investment in both passenger and freight services is needed. Action must be taken to increase capacity on the line, improve reliability and improve the quality of the service. Investment in the line will also be beneficial and complementary to phase 2 of HS2, when it is extended to Leeds and York.
The Scottish Government has already done much to improve rail services north of the Border. The opening of the Stirling to Alloa line, the Airdrie to Bathgate line, Borders rail link and improvements to services from Edinburgh to Glasgow, as well as ongoing commitment to further electrification will all improve access to the ECML, but more needs to be done.
With our partners in the ECMA, SEStran is calling for funding to be advanced to extend electrification of the strategic rail network to Aberdeen and Inverness, for improvements to the Highland Main Line between Perth and Inverness and between Aberdeen and the Central Belt. We also want to see enhancements to rail capacity through targeted improvements, including; rail enhancements in South-east Scotland, like station improvements at Dunbar, East Linton and Reston and provision of a new service between Berwick upon Tweed and Edinburgh.
The ECMA Consortium aims to work in partnership with government, industry and the rail industry to deliver the economic growth potential identified in our research.
We seek to do this through promoting co-operation over investment and improvements, securing investment, specifying franchised rail services that connect east coast economies and advancing improvement in rail freight to ensure HS2 services reach the north of England and Edinburgh sooner than currently proposed. We will also seek to develop the “Powerhouse for Rail” concept to ensure development of the vital skilled workforce and supply chain necessary in preparation for future investment.
The ECML is a vital resource for east coast communities. Ensuring it operates at peak performance and is fully integrated with existing rail services, and with the national rail network as high speed rail is developed is a once in a lifetime opportunity to plan for major long term economic growth. It is our duty to seize it.
• Councillor Russell Imrie is chair of SEStran sestran.gov.uk