York Press Column: Road and Rail
June 14, 2018
One of the most enjoyable parts of my job is visiting schools to speak with students about the role of a Member of Parliament. As you would expect, one of the most commonly asked questions is: “what do constituents write about?” There is of course a wide selection, ranging from potholes to the Middle East. However, one of the most popular subjects is transport. Whether this relates to a third runway at Heathrow or the provision of local bus services; transport is a very important subject for many people.
Nowhere is this importance made clearer than in correspondence I receive regarding the A1237. I am very pleased to see that work has started on upgrading the Wetherby Road roundabout, and this is the first step in improving seven roundabouts on the outer ring road. The programme will address congestion on the road and, crucially, reduce journey times. Furthermore, works to improve the Monks Cross roundabout will begin in 2019 for 9 months in order to increase junction capacity. Residents in the north of York know only too well why these works are necessary and I believe short-term disruption is a price worth paying.
As the summer holidays draw nearer we know only too well to expect similar frustration with gridlock on the A64 and tailbacks at Hopgrove. Highways England are currently at the stage of further considering options for enlarging the roundabout and dualling the road beyond the current 500m, and a final version of the plan will be published later this year.
Improving the road network is important but cities such as York also require modern and efficient rail services. I am sure that everyone will be aware of the issues with implementing the new Northern and TransPennine Express timetables. These are being addressed but the crux of the matter is the delay on delivering electrification upgrades further down the line.
From next Sunday, rail services on the East Coast Main Line will be operated by LNER on behalf of the Department for Transport. Although the rolling stock livery will change, there will be no alterations to the timetable and all previously booked tickets remain valid. The new LNER website is not yet live but you will be redirected from the current Virgin Trains booking page following the handover.
Does this represent a failure on the part of the Virgin Trains and Stagecoach franchise? Absolutely. However, it does not rationally follow that blanket nationalisation is the remedy to these particular concerns.
I sympathise with those constituents who communicate their frustrations at delays and cancellations because as a regular rail user I encounter the very same hold-ups and slow-moving journeys. There are instances where matters are beyond human control but otherwise the reasons are problems with either the rolling stock or the infrastructure. Rail operators are only responsible for the former.
Regardless of operator, new rolling stock will be rolled-out from December this year and we will be seeing the new Azuma trains in York. I have met with representatives from Hitachi and been assured that whilst new carriages deliver greater comfort, the train unit itself will be more robust in difficult conditions.
Since privatisation Network Rail have retained responsibility for infrastructure such as track, overhead cables, points and signals. My belief is that Network Rail is simply too large and therefore unable to focus on the particular challenges that all operators have faced whilst running services on the ECML. These predominantly emanate from capacity constraints, showing that the railway is a victim of its own success. Thankfully, the Government recognises this and will be establishing the East Coast Partnership from 2020, bringing track and train operations under the responsibility of a single brand that will have a leading role in planning future route infrastructure.
I would like to see a greater use of technology on our railways particularly digital, in-cab signalling. The Digital Railway Strategy, recently launched in York, set out the ambition for the Transpennine route to be the first digital intercity controlled railway, with the Government investing £3 billion to improve journeys.
Transport is always progressing and I want Britain to embrace development and technologies that will move us around in a faster, greener and safer manner. The question here is not public versus private, but rather how both can deliver solutions to keep us on the move.