Open mike Find a map of the UK, spread it on a table, examine its rail links and ports, then consider how they could be upgraded to make the whole country work better. Like this, for example …
I read in news on 14 June that the forecasts for the UK’s economic growth have been downgraded. I’m reminded of Rowan Atkinson’s wedding speech sketch when the father of the bride opens with, “There comes a point at every wedding where the man who paid for the bloody thing is allowed to say his bit.” We in the construction industry pay for public expenditure through our taxes, but we also implement the fruits of public expenditure and economic policies. We are also the first to pay when economic policies go wrong. So I thought I would say my bit.
To be frank, the news about the downgrading came as no surprise to me. I watched an interview in April 2009 with an investment manager called Jim Rogers, who said that the UK had nothing to sell the world. In a way he is correct: our raw materials are all but exhausted, we cannot compete with emerging economies in manufacturing, and now many services are being outsourced to emerging economies with lower labour costs. The fact that our banks are a disgrace does not help matters. But Mr Rogers ignored the fact that we still have something we can sell - our geography.
At the same time as I read the growth predictions I read about cuts in spending and the fact that the new coalition government is expected to review the proposals for HS2, a high-speed rail link between London and the West Midlands and beyond. I firmly believe HS2 is a product of the megalomania so typical of proposals for megaprojects rather than of sound economics. It is simply a duplication of the recently upgraded West Coast Mainline. What I am suggesting is there are places where the untold billions that will be wasted on this project could be used to bring industries and businesses into the UK.
First, I will deal with freight and ports. Few realise that the upgrade of the West Coast mainline led Liverpool docks to double its container port capacity. The reason is simple. Following the rail upgrade, Liverpool docks is effectively a Continental port owing to the existence of the Channel Tunnel. Liverpool is the nearest European deep water container port to North America and Panama. Things are helped by the fact that the Panama canal will complete its third set of locks in 2015. The Panama canal railway was also upgraded in 2000/01. This, along with the actions of pirates in the Indian Ocean, will mean that more freight flows via Panama, and two weeks can be saved by landing goods in Liverpool for onward shipment to Europe rather than waiting for a ship carrying said goods to queue to pass the English Channel and then queue to enter a German, Dutch or Danish port. At the same time the government has decided to upgrade the Great Western Line from London to South Wales. So we can expect that Swansea, Avonmouth and Milford Haven will start improving their facilities in expectation of future growth.
However, there is one fly in the ointment. Although much has been spent and will be spent on improving the West Coast Mainline and Great Western Mainline, nothing has been done to remove the bottlenecks in the rail system around London. The bottleneck that once existed on the West Coast Mainline now exists on the North London Line. What I propose is that a freight-only line be constructed from HS1 at Thurrock to the East and West Coast Mainlines through that area of north-east London that is within the M25 but still comparatively empty of development. In this way freight can then pass from Liverpool to Europe unhindered.
Similarly, there is a system of branch lines that already links the Great Western at Reading to Ashford. Can I suggest that these be upgraded? This will benefit our west coast ports and railways, and our manufacturing will also receive a boost. It will then be possible to remanufacture goods from other countries in the UK, and to assemble them from components sourced in the Far East, Africa, and the Americas. The export of raw and recycled materials will also benefit.
Second, I have another suggestion. At the moment none of the UK’s airports are linked to each other by high-speed links. A passenger may fly into Heathrow, but if their following flight is from another airport in the UK, then they have a journey lasting hours. This is especially true of Heathrow and Gatwick, which are linked by buses that journey along the busiest section of the M25. How about a train linking Heathrow and Gatwick? Fortunately, even the most elementarily map will show you that most of the track for such a link exists. There are also stations at Gatwick and Heathrow. We will then have two airports that function effectively as a single hub, creating further commerce and economic growth, by encouraging transatlantic passengers to pass through the UK.
Harvey Smith is contracts manager for Rasen Stroy Construction