By Cllr Tony Page, Vice Chair of South East Councils and Deputy Leader of Reading Borough Council
The ‘Great British Rail Sale’ offered few rewards for the South East. If we are to enact a step change in sustainable travel, the South East needs a genuinely joined up approach to transport planning and investment.
Discounted train tickets may attract day trippers and families this spring but it won’t address the deep seated issues that prevent this country progressing with a meaningful shift in how we travel. The Government should be focused on efficient infrastructure investment to speed up journey times, improve connections and encourage more people back onto the rails.
Crossrail: better late than never
Next week, the long-delayed and over-budget Elizabeth Line will open. This is good news, but until next year, passengers from Reading, Slough and Maidenhead will still need to change at Paddington to travel the length of the line. In time, Crossrail will unlock potential and create new opportunities in the region but we must learn lessons to speed up planning and delivery and start planning tomorrow’s investment immediately.
Both Heathrow and Gatwick Airports are poorly served by rail and public transport links that need substantial improvement – irrespective of the expansion debate which, post-pandemic, has been rendered essentially irrelevant.
The South East needs targeted rail investment to enable more efficient east-west journeys and swifter links to and from the region’s ports of entry.
Transport investment for South East will deliver for UK
The South East is one of just three regions in the UK that makes a net contribution to the Treasury. The region undoubtedly has a crucial role to play in the UK’s economic recovery and according to think-tank Localis in a report commissioned by South East Councils – ‘Resetting the South East’, “investing in the rail network capacity of the South East would bring benefits to regions beyond the South East and broaden access to investment opportunities.”
Two in three councillors (67 per cent) see rail infrastructure as a high priority for regional investment as part of the Government’s Covid-19 economic recovery plans. When asked what the most important matters to focus upon to help an area to ‘level up’ 28 per cent of respondents to our SE 1000 polling listed ‘better transport connections’ as a priority’.
The Government’s Integrated Rail Plan, published at the end of last year, predictably focused on the North and Midlands, overlooking all other regions including the South East.
There is a long overdue need to invest in capacity for more services to connect the Midlands and North with the South Coast and South East. For example there are no through services via Reading apart from the trimmed back Cross Country Manchester to Bournemouth service. It is scandalous that in 2022 there is no through access along the south coast east of Southampton to cities like Portsmouth and Brighton, let alone the many other areas that are south and east of London. Added to which through-freight services are also mostly limited to the Southampton to Midlands corridor. None of this delivers on the post-COP rhetoric from Government about modal shift away from cars and HGVs?
Strengthening the South East’s voice
Transport underpins economic growth, supports employment and facilitates trade in the South East and the Government should focus their energies on establishing a rail plan focused on regional priorities. Transport for the South East (TfSE) should be designated as a sub-national transport body to advise the Government on what our region needs.
We know that the Government will create the new public body, Great British Railways, as a single ‘guiding mind’ for the railways outside of London, but what is not yet clear is what this will mean for the prospect of rail bodies like TfSE having a greater say about what happens in their own regions.
We need a strong, democratic regional voice to deliver an accessible and better connected South East. Our region has a pivotal role to play and the temptation for the Government to turn its back on the South East as in its levelling up attempts, will be failing the entire country. This autumn’s summit – Tomorrow’s South East – brings an opportunity for the regions leaders to rally together to call on the Government to prioritise transport in the South East.