Political and business leaders in the midlands are demanding that the government end decades of under-investment in the region’s transport by funding a £3.6bn plan to cut rail journey times and increase capacity.
The seven linked schemes, dubbed Midlands Engine Rail, would upgrade existing lines in central England rather than building new ones, according to Midlands Connect, the subnational transport body that speaks for local authorities across the region and has drawn up the plan.
The initiative would help improve connections across the UK, add 736 passenger trains on the network each day and increase rail freight capacity by 1m lorries worth of cargo annually. Some £600m would electrify the Midland Main Line from Market Harborough to Sheffield, a scheme the government approved and then cancelled in July 2017.
Chancellor Sajid Javid has raised expectations of increased transport spending by promising an “infrastructure revolution” to improve the economy outside London and the southeast. Boris Johnson, prime minister, has publicly backed a new rail line between Leeds and Manchester as the first stage of a £39bn Northern Powerhouse Rail scheme promoted by Transport for the North. In July, he asked for detailed plans before the end of the year.
Most UK fast rail lines run north to south, radiating from London. The fastest train from Birmingham, the UK’s second-biggest city, to London (100 miles) takes 73 minutes, almost the same time as the fastest train to Nottingham, half the distance. Midlands Engine Rail would cut the Nottingham time to 33 minutes, its backers claim.
Only a fifth of journeys between Birmingham and Nottingham are made by train, compared with half between equivalent city pairs such as Sheffield and Manchester.
This improvement and many others rely on using parts of the HS2 line from London to the north via the midlands. HS2, expected to reach Birmingham in 2030, would also free up capacity on existing routes. The government is reviewing whether to build HS2 after its predicted price tag swelled from £56bn to as much as £88bn.
Midlands Connect wants £45.5m immediately to continue developing its plans. The body is part of the Midlands Engine scheme, a government-led attempt to improve transport, skills, cultural attractions and exports across the region.
John Peace, the former chairman of Experian and Burberry who chairs Midlands Connect and Midlands Engine, said poor transport links were holding back local businesses. Productivity in the West Midlands is 11 per cent below the national average and in the East Midlands it is 15 per cent lower. The East Midlands had the lowest level of public spending on infrastructure in 2017-18 at £245 per head, compared with £1,019 in London.
Sir John said: “My message to the prime minister is clear; it’s time you made a long-overdue commitment to the future of our rail network. Ten million midlanders are counting on you; invest in their futures, turn our vision into reality, back Midlands Engine Rail.”
Sir John will join political and business leaders at the Bombardier train factory in Derby on Thursday to submit the plan to Robert Jenrick, the housing minister and Midlands Engine champion. Work could start as early as 2022.
The midlands, which voted for Brexit, is a key election battleground, with many marginal seats the ruling Conservative party needs to win to ensure a majority.
The Department for Transport said: “We . . . support the aspiration to see better connections right across the midlands.”