If the Midlands is to succeed it needs 21st century transport infrastructure
The Midlands risks being squeezed out by ministers who talk as if there were only two possibilities for investment: London or 'the north'
Transport policy affects almost every one of our constituents as soon as they step out of their front doors, so whether it’s potholes and pavements, poor bus services or the high cost of rail travel, transport features regularly in conversations on the doorstep and in our postbags.
Our region faces other familiar challenges – congestion, poor air quality and places that feel unsafe for cyclists and pedestrians. The government has recognised transport’s role as a driver of economic growth but has shown less interest in its wider impacts and whilst the Midlands engine has huge potential, the region risks being squeezed out by ministers who talk as if there were only two possibilities for investment, London or “the north”.
Midland Mainline is a case in point. In 2015, ministers were only too happy to visit east Midlands marginal constituencies promising its electrification. After the general election the project was paused, then unpaused, then delayed by four years and now seems set to be dropped altogether, leaving our vital rail artery as the only main line not to be electrified.
If the Midlands is to succeed, it needs 21st century infrastructure and an electrified Midland Mainline is an essential component.
Future Midlands rail connections will be transformed by HS2. Phase 1 provides much needed additional capacity between London and the west Midlands, where local commuter services have been squeezed off the overcrowded west coast main line and reliability is in decline.
But Phase 2 is arguably even more important, transforming east-west connectivity and linking the cities of the Midlands to the north and Scotland. As the route is confirmed, Midlands Connect must ensure that the economic benefits spread to every part of the region and that investment is integrated with the industrial strategy – boosting jobs and skills in our world-leading rail engineering industry.
Rail and road dominate transport – it’s where the big money goes and it’s what transport correspondents always want to discuss, but buses are the most widely used form of public transport, accounting for 62% of such journeys compared to 20% by rail. Since services (outside London) were deregulated they’ve seen three decades of decline and since 2010 fares rises have far outstripped wage growth and thousands of routes have been cut or withdrawn. Nottingham is a rare exception but even here passengers face a confusing range of tickets, periodic ‘bus wars’ and poor integration.
Across the Midlands, residents without access to a car – the young, the old, people with disabilities and those on low incomes – are often poorly served, particularly in the evenings and at weekends. The difficulties are especially severe in rural areas. New powers in the bus services bill could transform bus networks but the government’s decision to restrict their use to places with a directly-elected mayor will severely limit its impact. Why should the power to improve bus services be right for Birmingham and Dudley but not Boston and Derby? This is a question ministers will be challenged on when the bill comes to the Commons.
Transport mustn’t exist in a silo – making the links with planning, public health and strong communities is essential. Our local authorities must ensure that safe walking and cycling routes and good public transport links are incorporated into new housing developments and employment sites. If we are serious about cutting congestion, promoting sustainability and improving air quality, we must make public transport a more attractive choice and incentivise those who need to use private vehicles to switch to environmentally friendly models. As the centre of the UK’s automotive sector, the Midlands is well placed to both lead and benefit from such developments.
Finally, as Brexit prompts business to seek out new international markets, Birmingham Airport and East Midlands Airport offer great opportunities for both passengers and freight. The government should task the National Infrastructure Commission with examining their surface access needs. Our region has amazing potential, better transport is key to unlocking it.
Lilian Greenwood is Labour MP for Nottingham South and a former shadow transport secretary