Lessons To Be Learned - From Essex, Oxfordshire, Hertfordshire
As if the daily news bulletins on climate change weren't enough two items in the UK news cycle today reconfirm urgent reassessment of Lancashire and the northwest's need for improved connectivity for east west travel and urban centres straddling the Pennines.
The 'Spires Line' is a long held aspiration to bring about direct rail services between Cambridge in the east and Oxford, as well as other centres of research and technology inbetween. Initial steps towards this logical objective have been taken with new connections at Bicester and upgrade of what has been a freight line running to Bedford from Bicester (and Oxford). The east west link has become ever more apparent with road congestion on motorway routes to and from the M25 and wider London area. This 'East-West Rail Project' seeks to complete rail service between the two university hubs by the end of this decade with the added emphasis on electrication of all services and away from diesel powered trains. A purpose designed company has been created to deliver the route with formal involvement of the Dept for Transport. A first stage will involve trains connecting Oxford with Milton Keynes (via Bicester) within three years.
A further new rail connection is being planned for services running east west from Hemel Hempstead and Watford to Stansted Airport. This involves combined planning of Hertfordshire and Essex Councils in addition to local authorities. The transport mode for this new link has yet to be determined with light rail tram trains being one of several options now under detailed consideration. 'Hertfordshire Essex Rapid Transit' (HERT) is yet a further example of joined up action plan by visionary public bodies seeking to strengthen community connectivity and infrastructure above and beyond the bog standard new road building schemes of past decades. Its prospectus is available online being published this week and shows by way of illustration a simulated light rail vehicle (sans overhead power wires) traversing residential streets.
The Fylde's own rail network remains frozen in time from the 1970s in an era when electric power and light rail transit are at the leading edge of transport strategies by many (if not all) regional bodies. The Fleetwood Heritage Leisure Trust (FHLT) has this in mind with its own inception of a anchor visitor leisure scheme at Wyre Dock (no pun) with connecting rail service utilising the dormant railway line running from Poulton to Fleetwood's riverfront - the latter in urgent need of economic renewal. In the background to this is now the menace of higher sea levels due to global warming underway which have a grave impact on the Fylde's coastline. No doubt these factors are being given due attention both at Blackpool Wyre and Fylde LA level, as well as by county and regional bodies charged with long term and strategic planning.
The new rail connectivity initiatives demonstrated in southern England underline the importance of the northwest getting its collective act together in going beyond annual budget planning and new housing schemes (of which there are far too many bog standard developments chasing available greenfield sites). Fortunately both Preston and Blackpool have pro-active minds at work on light rail and electric power innovation; whilst Manchester City Region is well advanced with its Metrolink network embracing ever more towns and communities. Sadly Liverpool missed out on its chance to launch a parallel network through no fault of its forward thinking leaders and transport operator a decade or so ago. Across the Mersey the private sector Wirral Waters scheme likewise had similar light rail intentions, so far unrealised. Several of Blackpool's former tram fleet made it almost to the Wirral for a heritage aspect of that grand plan. One of these is now destined to become an iconic feature at Rossall School resulting from arrangements between the FHLT and the School's Board. More on this shortly.
Rail connectivity up close. Manchester Victoria. Blackpool North's tram and train connection is well intended but won't quite make it this close. Photo : John Woodman