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Midlands rail can't afford any more under-investment

Maria Machancoses

When new recommendations for transport infrastructure emerge, one of the first questions asked is: how much will they cost?

However, a more pertinent question is: what will be the cost to our economy if we don’t make these improvements?

This summer, Midlands Connect launched Our Routes to Growth, a report summarising the region’s priority infrastructure projects and the benefits they will bring. A central part of this is a 20-year strategy of improvements to create a ‘Midlands Rail Hub’.

Rail capacity and connectivity in the Midlands need an overhaul. Train passengers regularly find themselves on slow, overcrowded and unreliable trains. And it’s not only about passenger services; with four of the UK’s five main rail freight routes passing through the Midlands, new freight paths are just as important to a fully functioning transport system.

What’s on offer

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. This is equal to five times the freight capacity of HS2 and enough extra space to carry another £22bn worth of goods a year on the railways.

The Midlands Rail Hub also includes space for 24 additional passenger services every hour, bringing six million more train journeys a year onto the Midlands rail network.

Under the Midlands Connect plans, direct services between Coventry and Leicester would be reinstated and connections between east and west vastly improved, with journey time savings of almost 20 minutes between Nottingham and Birmingham and 25 minutes between Hereford and Birmingham. These improvements will significantly improve access to affordable rapid mass transit HS2 services.

“The Midlands Rail Hub could be delivered for hundreds of millions rather than tens of billions”

For the construction industry, these time savings make the Midlands’ towns and cities commutable for millions more people, giving employers access to more skilled labour. Indeed, the programme will support more than 100,000 new jobs planned in major growth sites all over the region in the next two decades, across a range of industries.

Fraction of the cost

As with any proposal, there will be a construction cost, the nuances of which can change and flex with time. The Midlands Rail Hub is a combination of interventions such as longer / restored platforms, minor electrification, and improved junctions and signalling, allowing for some of the new services to run in time for the opening of HS2 phase one in 2026.

Some major building work will be necessary, including the construction and reinstatement of elevated chords in Birmingham involving associated land acquisition, planning permission and design. However, the total programme could be delivered by 2033, at a fraction of the cost of other major rail construction projects.

In total, the Midlands Rail Hub could be delivered for hundreds of millions rather than tens of billions. Neither is it an all-or-nothing initiative: it could be delivered in stages at an incremental cost, as opposed to a single major investment. And, as with any major infrastructure investment proposal, Midlands Connect will never make a recommendation unless the benefits outweigh the costs. 

The Midlands Rail Hub can bring the region’s great towns and cities closer together and accelerate the job creation that’s emerging. However, without long overdue investment in our transport network we will not be able to grow and support the UK economy.

There is a potentially huge prize on offer here, in return for a relatively small series of infrastructure investments. 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 – and 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 for any longer.

Maria Machancoses is a director of Midlands Connect

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