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With capacity comes opportunity

Investment in the nation’s rail network is an investment in economic growth.

The UK’s rail network fulfils a vital role in connecting our towns, cities, communities and regions. But rail provides much more than a means of getting from A to B. Improvements that boost capacity or open up new routes provide a powerful stimulus for growth, regeneration and employment. Investing in rail is one of the most effective ways to boost the UK economy.

Investment is needed now because the current network is approaching full capacity. Today, rail supports 40 per cent more passenger journeys and 60 per cent more freight than it did a decade ago. At peak times on the busiest parts of the network, there is simply no space for more trains. Yet over the next 30 years, Network Rail expects freight demand to rise by 140 per cent and passenger demand to more than double.

Government and industry are working together to meet this capacity challenge across the rail network.

Practical improvements to ease congestion include running more frequent services and employing longer trains. However, even these apparently simple measures are not straightforward, as improvements to stations and platforms are typically needed to cater for additional carriages and increased passenger volumes.

One example of this is a project designed to increase capacity at Bank Underground station in the City of London. One of the capital’s most complex infrastructure schemes, the work will improve connection times between Tube lines and dramatically improve the passenger experience. A new Northern Line southbound tunnel will liberate more platform space, while improved interchange tunnels and an additional station entrance will reduce crowding at peak times. Tunnelling will take place under iconic landmarks such as the Bank of England and Mansion House, and importantly the work has been carefully planned to ensure that this crucial transport hub will remain open throughout construction.

That said, there is a limit to what can be done with existing infrastructure, and new lines will play an important part in supporting increased rail traffic.

HS2, one of the UK’s most transformational new rail projects, is set to have a profound impact on the economy. It will provide a high-speed link bridging the north-south divide and, importantly, liberate passenger and freight capacity by taking longer journeys off existing lines.

There is also growing investment in the country’s regional and rural lines. The reopening of disused railway lines is an efficient way of meeting demand by reclaiming former infrastructure.

A prime example of how new railway investment can revitalise communities is offered by the Borders Railway project. Delivered by Network Rail in partnership with Transport Scotland, the project involves reopening the Waverley Line that was closed by Beeching in 1969.

The new line is more than a restoration of the original route – it includes 30 miles of new track and seven new stations, making it the longest new domestic railway to be constructed in Britain for more than 100 years. As well as a driver for local regeneration, the new line has already proved to be a catalyst for the wider Scottish economy, driving inward investment, business development and housing opportunities. New communities are developing along the route, and with them numerous opportunities for employment, business, tourism and leisure.

The Waverley Line example demonstrates both the harm caused by a lack of infrastructure and the benefits of network improvements, underlining the strong connection between investment in rail and economic growth.

Clearly, rail is not the answer to every transport question. The greatest stimulus to the economy will come from a joinedup approach, where improvements to rail, road and aviation are tackled in concert.

Coordinated development at a national scale will not be easy, but the potential rewards could be huge.

Ian Hay is the UK director of rail at URS Investment in the nation’s rail network is an investment in economic growth

 

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era