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COVID must accelerate not stall, our green transport revolution

Published: Tuesday 03 March 2021

COVID must accelerate not stall, our green transport revolution

Darwin’s theory of evolution outlines a simple mantra - ‘adapt or die’. It is this, our ability to respond to changes in the environment, disruption and adversity, that has underpinned the success of the human race for thousands of years. Each time we are faced with turbulence, we react, and find a way to not only survive, but thrive, despite challenging circumstances. After World War Two, the state welfare system was born, providing free healthcare and a boom in council housing to sustain the injured, destitute and those in need. Following the financial crisis of 2008, we reacted by creating new regulatory bodies, vetting financial directors more closely and creating new compliance and governance structures designed to prevent another crash. This latest crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, is a force of nature. Our reaction must demonstrate a new found respect for our environment, one that tackles the economic shortfall while addressing the biggest challenge of our generation; climate change.

In tomorrow’s Budget, the Chancellor has the opportunity to demonstrate his intent. We’ve heard of Government’s plans to ‘Build Back Better’ and repeated pledges to ‘level up’, but now is the time to translate these words into action. Pre-pandemic, we’d made huge strides in boosting the use of public transport, in the West Midlands, rail use had more than doubled in the decade leading up to 2020. Lockdown restrictions brought the network to a standstill, erasing our progress. We have a limited window to welcome people back onto our network, in greater numbers than ever before, but to do this, we need investment.

Firstly, we need a network that links the whole of the Midlands region, east to west. Less than twenty per cent of journeys from Birmingham to Nottingham and Birmingham to Leicester are made by rail, an overreliance on cars exacerbated by slow, infrequent connections. We need more space to bring trains into the city centre at Birmingham Moor Street station; anyone who has been stuck waiting in a tunnel under New Street station will testify to the fact that before lockdown hit, it was running at capacity, just one crowded platform or delayed service was all it took to cause a domino effect of delays and a queue of services stuck in tunnels waiting for a way through. Finally, we also need to create space on our rail network for more rail freight. Transporting goods by rail takes lorries off our roads and reduces carbon emissions by 78 per cent. It’s a no brainer.

Luckily, this bit’s for you Mr Chancellor, the Midlands has a rail programme that addresses all of these issues – Midlands Engine Rail. Its flagship scheme the Midlands Rail Hub, will be a game changer for Birmingham. It will get people out of their cars and onto trains, creating 20 new rail paths into and out of Birmingham Moor Street Station every hour, from places like Nottingham, Derby, Leicester, Worcester, Hereford and Bristol. It will bring passengers onto the doorstep of the new high speed network, trains that will roll in to Birmingham Curzon Street next door. It will give us space to run regular services on the soon to be reopened Camp Hill line, servicing Moseley, Kings Heath and Hazelwell, and will create room for over a million more lorries worth of goods to be transported by rail every year. The Midlands Rail Hub is an affordable, deliverable vision that we can start implementing now, an investment that will speed our recovery from COVID-19, supporting hundreds of jobs and boosting sustainable travel Midlands-wide.

We’ve also submitted plans for a region-wide ‘tap and cap’ smart payment system for public transport. As well as improving safety, allowing contactless payments via bank card or phone; it will boost convenience, by allowing seamless travel across all modes including train, tram and bus; and value for money, imposing a daily fare cap and catering to those who choose to work more flexibly post-COVID. If given the £20million funding we need in the Budget, it could be up and running in Birmingham by the end of 2022.

When it comes to our transport network post-pandemic, Darwin’s observations must guide us once more. We must adapt and evolve, not only welcoming back the passengers we had, but bringing more people onto our public transport network than ever before. This virus has taught us the huge power of our natural environment, and just how much can go wrong when we fail to act. Now is the time to act on climate change, and invest in a green, sustainable, carbon-neutral railway. Our future depends on it.

This article was written by Maria Machancoses, CEO of Midlands Connect