The Stockton to Darlington Railway, one of the first of its kind in the world, catalyzed the industrial revolution when built in 1825, and heralded a new era of mass, affordable travel that transformed how populations live, all across the world.
Rail, to this day, still has the power to change lives for the better.
As we look at the UK in 2021, our railways are just as essential as they ever were. Whilst the pandemic inevitably affected passenger numbers, the UK’s railways still played as important a role as ever in transporting key workers and goods around the country.
Emerging from the various lockdowns and restrictions, we are starting to see passenger numbers return quickly, as people once again begin to travel around the country – whether for leisure or work.
What is clear is that our railways have been through world wars, pandemics, economic downturns and much more – and they always bounce back, supporting the UK as the backbone of the economy.
Rail should be a prime candidate for investment as the Government looks to industries to spur an economic recovery. It is a green mode of transport, geographically spread across the UK, is a generator of jobs and growth, and is a global industry – rail investment could be used as a launchpad for businesses to export abroad.
All these aspects are true of the three major projects planned for the North of England: HS2, Northern Powerhouse Rail and the Transpennine Route Upgrade. Each one also needs to be delivered in full, if we are to unlock the full economic benefits.
It is estimated that HS2 will support 30,000 jobs at the peak of construction and Transport for the North has estimated that – combined with HS2 – Northern Powerhouse Rail could lead to 74,000 jobs being created by 2060. HS2 Ltd say over 500,000 jobs could be supported through the project’s wider economic impact.
These schemes also require a wide range of skills and provide excellent opportunities to the younger generation.
Since construction began, HS2 has brought on over 500 apprentices, who will learn skills in critical areas for our economy, including construction, net zero and digital technology. Many businesses are gearing up for the work HS2 will provide, recruiting into well-paid, highly skilled jobs that will provide young people with fantastic career prospects in future.
Crucially, these projects could see a golden age for the UK rail sector. Northern Rail Industry Leaders (NRIL), a group of some 150 rail supply businesses around the region, has been working closely with organisations like Transport for the North to see how planned railway investment can have the biggest impact for rail companies in the North.
Our members have much of what is needed to begin a new rail infrastructure revolution – there are major train manufacturers present, providers of maintenance and overhaul services; components, signalling, electrification, telecoms, and software companies; and a number of track systems providers too.
We have universities with world-leading facilities, state-of-the-art training locations where we can skill-up our workforce and many SMEs developing specialist equipment which they sell around the world.
In total, rail already contributes around £7.3bn in economic growth to the Northern Powerhouse area and some 132,700 jobs which would be significantly increased by investment in rail projects in the North.
What is clear is that these businesses need certainty in what projects are being planned. A recent survey by the Railway Industry Association and High Speed Rail Group asked over 100 SMEs right across the UK about the importance of HS2. It found that of those already working on HS2, 80.5 per cent anticipated a drop in revenue should the West Midlands to Leeds leg not go ahead, with nearly half responding that they would need to downsize staff levels.
Almost a fifth said that they would even consider moving into other markets. It is likely that the view is similar for larger companies – cutbacks to rail investment will directly impact the sector’s ability to create jobs and economic growth.
As we await the Integrated Rail Plan for the North and Midlands, we urge the Government to grasp the opportunity provided by HS2, Northern Powerhouse Rail and Transpennine Route Upgrade – an opportunity to bring skilled employment, investment and economic growth to communities across the UK.
Two hundred years ago, the Stockton to Darlington Railway sparked an industrial revolution. With the Government’s backing, these projects can do the very same.
David Clarke is the Northern Rail Industry Leaders (NRIL) Executive Member and Railway Industry Association’s Technical Director.
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