Most people imagine that York has always been a very prosperous city packed with business people and ‘white-collar’ workers, but historically it is far more ‘blue-collar’ focused principally around the industries of chocolate and, of course, railways. These historic and present-day rail connections and its unique, strategic location make a compelling case for the city to host the new Great British Railways headquarters.
The Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps, clearly agrees. He chose the world famous National Railway Museum in York as the location to launch the William-Shapps plan for Rail White Paper. This plan sets out a bold new vision for passengers of punctual and reliable services, simpler tickets and a modern, green and innovative railway that will meet the needs of the whole nation. When I made the case for York in Parliament, Mr Shapps was quick to agree that it would make a stunning location for its new home.
York is, without doubt, a wonderful city steeped in railway history. The impressive station was built in 1877 and was, at the time, the largest in the world. In the mid-19th century York became the major hub for the growing network and, thanks to the strategic vision of George Hudson, it has been an important railway centre ever since and has been a major site for rolling stock manufacture, maintenance and repair.
It is no coincidence that our fantastic National Railway Museum can be found in York. Here you can explore over 200 years of rail history and the huge impact our railways have had on our lives and economy, not least when powering the largely northern-based Industrial Revolution. So, it makes perfect sense as we launch a new era in our railways that Great British Railways should be based, not only in the North but in York itself, the home of our railways and Hudson, the Railway King. In fact, it is true to say that the rail network saved the city from stagnation in the 19th century by bringing heavy industry and tourists to the city and making it one of the UK’s top tourist destinations, known the world over.
Impressive though York’s historical connections to the railways are, the city also has present day ones, too. Thousands of high-calibre, well-paid, engineering, design, operational, management, repair and training railway jobs are located in the city and close by and it is also the administration centre for Network Rail.
York has an ideal location ‘shovel-ready’ for the new HQ. It could be based in York Central otherwise known, because of its shape, as the ‘teardrop’ site which is part owned by Network Rail. This 45-hectare site is one of the largest brownfield sites in Europe offering 112,000 square metres of high quality commercial office space and is connected to the back of the railway station giving the new staff easy access to the railways they will be running and all the major town and cities on its network.
Due to its history, York occupies a uniquely strategic location. It has easy access to the North and South, virtually equidistant in time and mileage from the London and Edinburgh capital cities, and to the East and West. It is just half an hour from Treasury North, now based in Darlington and 23 minutes from Leeds, the HQ of the new UK Infrastructure Bank. Northern Powerhouse Rail will make it even easier to access all the major cities and towns in the North from York and its connections will also facilitate the agglomeration effect of connecting 10 million people into one, entire, London-sized economy. HS2 will also play a key role in these inter-regional economic opportunities, for example halving journey times from York to Birmingham from two hours to under an hour.
Great British Railways will bring hundreds of well-paid jobs to the area. The point has been made that York is not far from anywhere so new employees would have an easy commute.
However, for those who prefer to live near their work, I cannot think of lovelier place to live than in or around the City of York or, indeed, in North Yorkshire, which boasts some of the most beautiful coast and countryside in England.
Over the next few months I shall work closely with North Yorkshire and City of York Councils, the Local Enterprise Partnership and other stakeholders, including the mayor for the York City Region when elected in 2023, to make the case for York.
We are confident that we can show that York would make the perfect capital of our new Great Britain Railways Kingdom.