A guest blog from Peter Kennan, a private sector Board Member on Sheffield City Region’s Local Enterprise Partnership and a representative for the Sheffield City Region on the Board of Transport for the North.
Sheffield City Region LEP have been working closely with Doncaster Council, Sheffield City Region Mayoral Combined Authority and the East Coast Main Line Authorities Board [representing councils up and down the whole London to Edinburgh railway - and beyond] to respond to a proposed new timetable from May 2022 for Doncaster's rail services.
Transport is a facilitator. A facilitator of what you say? Of long-term improvements in skills, productivity and innovation. Of better health and wellbeing [particularly through decarbonising our transport network]. The East Coast Main Line [“ECML”] really did help put Doncaster on the map with its famous locomotive works and it today gives Doncaster fantastic transport connections and a cluster of rail businesses which are the envy of most other towns and cities across the UK.
Nothing stands still though and to stay ahead of the game Doncaster has to constantly adapt – and it is doing. The town’s inclusive sustainable growth strategy can benefit from the skills, engineering and innovation brought by the new University Technical College, the National College for Advanced Transport and Infrastructure and now the University led Future Mobility Unit being planned at Doncaster Sheffield Airport.
Freight and logistics have been at the heart of Doncaster’s recent economic success and recent developments at I-Port and Doncaster Sheffield Airport have helped further. Transport for the North’s new Freight Strategy will have decarbonisation at its core and we are working closely with the TfN team since the drive to decarbonise freight gives Doncaster, with its rail cluster, a great opportunity to take more rail borne freight.
The redevelopment around Doncaster rail station with its seamless interchange to other modes of public transport, has been very welcome and any of Doncaster’s 4 million rail passengers get a great first impression of the town on arrival.
Network Rail have already invested billions of pounds in the ECML and it is sometimes disappointing to hear and to read comments about the ECML being “downgraded” when (and if) HS2 arrives. It is just not the case with huge investment being made up and down the line particularly south of Doncaster.
The result of that investment in the ECML is the ability to enhance the timetable. The recent consultation on the proposed new May 2022 timetable saw Doncaster’s LNER service to London increasing and Sunday services, in particular, being enhanced by over 30%. So important, particularly in a time of Covid recovery, with leisure travel leading the way. The proposals also saw Doncaster getting direct services to all 7 Scottish cities for the first time.
The Cross Country service, which before the pandemic, ran hourly from Southampton/Reading to Newcastle via Birmingham and Doncaster is preserved and the Trans-Pennine Express service from Cleethorpes to Manchester via Doncaster and Sheffield is also undisturbed. [We are still fighting a separate battle to get direct services to Manchester Airport reinstated]. Northern Railway have proposed to increase the peak time stopping service to Leeds to half-hourly from hourly.
Despite the investment that has already gone in, the ability to do more is seriously constrained by a lack of capacity on the ECML around Doncaster. A recent Network Rail study pointed to a number of enhancements which could be made to improve matters and everyone involved locally will continue to press for as much investment cash as Network Rail can procure from the Treasury. Key asks are the completion of a rail link from Doncaster to Gateway East and Doncaster Sheffield Airport, a new railway station to serve Askern, better services connecting Doncaster and Sheffield via local stations and enough capacity so there is no constriction of rail freight traffic to our freight and logistics hubs.
Further north on the ECML, the capacity challenges are severe. The proposed new timetable had to make trade offs as a result of not enough space being available for every desired train service. Some direct services from the North West, via West Yorkshire to the North East were curtailed to free up the space needed for more London/Newcastle/Edinburgh ECML services. Many people in the areas affected are unhappy and working through Transport for the North I have sympathy for those affected. The problem is the lack of capacity north of York and the solution is for central government to invest more money to improve it. Ultimately though, we want to ensure that the proposals for the May 2022 timetable are implemented as they are generally very good for the development plans of Doncaster and the wider Sheffield City Region.
Government has now announced a pause whilst matters are re-examined. The delay could be to May 2023 or even beyond. This presents a risk to Doncaster and to Sheffield City Region and it is therefore important for local MPs and anyone else with influence in central government to ensure that the voice of South Yorkshire is heard, so that we end up with a fair and equitable final timetable which delivers as many of the improvements for Doncaster as possible. I will be doing what I can through my role on the Board of Transport for the North.
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