General, HP, Stregthening our economy, Surrey County Council, Transport

Electrifying North Downs Line will boost economy by almost £2 billion

A train on North Downs Line. Click image to download

Fully electrifying the North Downs Line will generate thousands of jobs and almost £2 billion for the region’s economy, Surrey County Council’s Mike Goodman told an event attended by the Transport Secretary.

Patrick McLoughlin heard Surrey’s Cabinet Member for Environment and Planning call for the last two sections of the Reading to Gatwick line to be electrified by 2019 – a total of 29 miles of track.

Mr Goodman said that research by four local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) – Enterprise M3, Thames Valley Berkshire, Solent and Coast to Capital – suggested that the electrification would create around 8,000 jobs and stimulate £1.9 billion of economic growth.

He also used his speech at the Great Western Railway (GWR) conference in London to highlight the need for more frequent trains on the line, longer platforms and greater capacity at Guildford station.

“In the context of a heavily congested highway network and congested rail corridors with a London focus, I believe this line could play a more strategic role in supporting the development of a successful regional economy and promoting balanced growth across the South East,” Mr Goodman said.

“We believe that a fully electrified service will offer passengers quicker, more reliable and better connected services.”

The meeting also heard that Surrey is working with a host of organisations, including three LEPs, Gatwick Airport and other councils, to secure improvements.

The full transcript of Mike Goodman’s speech is below.

I am Mike Goodman, Surrey County Council’s Cabinet Member for Environment and Planning.

Part of my portfolio covers rail, so I was delighted to be invited by Great Western Railway to come and talk to you about our vision for the North Downs Line AND how we would like to work with partners to move that vision forward.

I would like to start by setting a challenging date. The challenge is to secure investment and improvements on the North Downs Line by 2019.

I am going to return to this challenge later.

Given that the GWR franchise is very large, and some of you may not be that familiar with the North Downs Line, I thought it might be helpful to paint an image of the line. Hopefully, this will ensure everyone here today from across the wide GWR franchise area knows where and what I am talking about!

The line is often called, as it is on the agenda, the Reading – Gatwick line. I think the title helps to highlight the strategic importance of the route. Yet to many it is the North Downs Line – a name that evokes a certain image. The line runs through some truly glorious countryside.

A North Downs Line train service takes you through the beautiful Surrey Hills….An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The line passes through beautiful towns and villages such as Dorking, Reigate, Gomshall and many others besides.
It gives great access to some of England’s most stunning and accessible countryside.

HOWEVER – our vision for the line is one that reflects the role of Surrey and neighbouring counties as key economic drivers in the South East of England. The line travels through some of the UK’s most economically dynamic and successful areas.

  • For example Reading – a strategically important location at the western end of the line. Reading is a key commercial and economic centre on the M4 corridor.
  • The line travels through Berkshire and the Blackwater Valley – areas that are set to see significant housing and commercial growth over the coming years.
  • The line also serves Guildford – this is a town home to the Surrey Research Park and the University of Surrey. I am proud to say that the University of Surrey was recently voted the country’s number one university; whilst the Surrey Research Park is widely regarded as the best of its kind in the UK– it generates significant economic growth – you may not know that the research park is home to Surrey Satellite Technology Limited, the world’s leading small satellite company at the forefront of space innovation. A large new University Technical College is also planned for Guildford – this will be a fantastic addition to our education and training offer.
  • Then on to Dorking, Reigate, Redhill – key Surrey towns and home to big business, including Canon, Exxon Mobile, Esure, Friends Life, plus the headquarters of many other major national and international businesses.
  • The line provides essential access to Gatwick Airport – the world’s busiest single runway airport. Whatever the Government’s decision on airport expansion, future rail access to Gatwick Airport will assume greater strategic importance given projected passenger growth.

Mike Goodman speaking at the conference. Click image to download

Nearly 400,000 people live within easy access of the route, approximately 290,000 jobs lie within a 2 kilometre catchment area of the line. So not surprisingly 5.4 million passengers used the North Downs Line in 2015. I hope this shows how important the line is in supporting the economy of the region.

HOWEVER – there are some important issues that we need to address. This level of train service does not reflect the economic power of these areas. It is held back by

  • Slow journey times
  • Inadequate frequency of service
  • Creaking infrastructure
  • And – several stations along the route that are in desperate need of improvement.

Simply put, I believe the North Downs Line could do so much more with targeted investment and this was recognised in the Wessex Route Study, which proposed much needed improvements along the line.

In 2013 Surrey researched and published our Surrey Rail Strategy. This work helped us identify that the North Downs Line is a key priority for Surrey County Council. Our work highlighted the potential role of the line as a strategic corridor, providing an orbital rail link around London.

In the context of a heavily congested highway network and congested rail corridors with a London focus, I believe that this line could play a more strategic role in

  • Supporting the development of a successful regional economy AND
  • Promoting balanced growth across the South East.

To help Surrey fully understand what we and partners need to do to deliver our vision we commissioned consultants Arup to complete an assessment of the North Downs Line. This assessment set out a series of much needed investments in infrastructure  services, and  stations. It set out phasing over the short, medium and long term.

Our vision for the North Downs Line is one that includes:

  • Full electrification – currently 29 miles of track in 2 sections along the line are not electrified. We believe that a fully electrified service will offer passengers quicker, more reliable and better connected services.
  • We would like to see additional capacity at Guildford station, capacity that will benefit both the North Downs Line and main line services.
  • We are calling for a targeted programme of line speed enhancements.
  • As part of a three train per hour timetable we would like to see the extension of services beyond Reading to Oxford, enhancing the role of the line as an orbital London route and opening up exciting journey opportunities to support jobs and economic growth.
  • We would like to see investment at stations along the route, including platform lengthening and investment to improve access and facilities.
  • In the long term, to truly fulfil the potential of the line, we would like to see a 4 train per hour service.

Delivering this makes good economic sense. Our work showed that these improvements have a good return on the investment required. Work led by 3 Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) confirmed that improvements to the line will:

  • DELIVER AN ESTIMATED 8,000 JOBS
  • INCREASE GROWTH BY £1.9 BILLION

Achieving this it will be fantastic for the region. I know that there are some difficulties with some of these actions – nationally, electrification has been shown to be challenging. Yet I believe a relatively small investment will bring significant benefits:

I REPEAT – AN ESTIMATED 8,000 NEW JOBS.

We will achieve improvements more quickly and more effectively if we work together.

Working with GWR we have engaged with and secured the support of

  • 9 borough, district and unitary councils
  • 3 county councils
  • Gatwick Airport
  • 3 Local Enterprise Partnerships

There is great enthusiasm to secure improvements for the North Downs Line, which will be good for business – at Surrey County Council this enthusiasm comes from the Leader down!

That said, nothing seems to happen very fast in the rail industry. So let’s return to the challenge and start at the beginning and by working together let’s make the North Downs Line an exception and complete this by 2019.

I hope that Surrey, GWR, LEPs and other partners can work with the Minister and his department with the aim of securing North Downs Line investment. Minister, the three LEPs and others have produced a document that sets out not only our vision but our goal. I would like to invite you to discuss this document with partners to make 2019 a reality.

It will be great for our region and it will be great for the UK.

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