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Let’s keep the East Coast on track

January 28, 2014

Newcastle was proud to host a high level debate around the future of the East Coast Main Line last week.

Local authorities from London to the Scottish highlands sent delegates to the civic centre, for the latest in a series of discussions about the future of this vital network and to improve our understanding of its economic impact.

The North East is the cradle of the world’s railways – we all know about Stephenson and The Rocket – and railways are part of our DNA. For more than 150 years, the East Coast Main Line has connected us to the rest of the country and shaped the economy of our region.

It carries 155 trains a day, over 18 million passenger journeys a year, and 30 percent of all rail freight for at least part of the journey. It provides 3,000 direct jobs for staff between Inverness and London, not to mention more than 700 jobs being created at Newton Aycliffe, assembling Hitachi’s new electric trains to run on the line. It contributes £640m to public funds – significantly more than privately run lines – and its revenue exceeds the operating costs of the franchise.

The Government has invited three private operators to bid for the line. Commercial ownership has twice ended in failure, whereas public ownership has set a high standard.

It is important that everyone has the chance to have their say on the future of the East Coast Main Line, including the public, businesses using freight services, and employers who depend on vital rail links with London and the rest of the UK. The East Coast Main Line authorities are preparing a strategic business case that will set out the economic necessity of the line, and we must all contribute.

As things stand, we could well be on the verge of another golden age of rail travel: passenger numbers are up, satisfaction levels are up – yes, fares are also up – but there is a push to invest in rail once again.

I’m an advocate of HS2, like other leaders of the UK’s core cities, but I have always made clear that HS2 needs to be seen alongside investment in East Coast Main Line and not instead of it. HS2 will bring new opportunities to towns and cities; it will drive growth outside of London; cut journey times and carry more passengers the length of the country – a better East Coast Main Line will do all of this. The success of HS2 and the East Coast are integral to each other.

Here in Newcastle we are putting our money where our mouth is by making a multi-million pound investment in transforming Central Station and the surrounding area. Passengers arriving at Newcastle will soon enjoy a magnificent sweeping gateway through the station – one of the best entrances to a city anywhere in the UK. The station portico will be glazed and pedestrianised, providing new retail space, and better passenger facilities including a new travel centre. This is on top of an £8m investment by Nexus in the Metro at Central Station.

This is our statement of confidence in Newcastle as a city and in rail as a mode of transport fit for the future. We all have a duty to champion this line, because we believe in rail, and we believe in the East Coast Main Line.

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