Devolved Government in the United Kingdom and departure from the European Union has increased awareness of the need for better connectivity between the four home nations of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. This has resulted in a Union Connectivity Review (UCR) being established by the Department for Transport to improve the economic performance of the UK as an entity.

The headline project of the study is an evaluation of providing a fixed link between Scotland and Northern Ireland described as the short sea route where the Government has sought input from Network Rail (NR) about the options. NR Chairman Sir Peter Hendy who is heading the overall review has said that a tunnel is a more likely solution than a bridge because of the regularity of severe weather conditions experienced in the North Channel of the Irish Sea.

The longer Portpatrick to Larne crossing (28 miles) is the favoured option for a fixed link given poor transport connections for the shorter 13-mile crossing to reach the Mull of Kintyre  

At present connectivity is provided by two ferry operators P&O and Stena who provide Ro-Ro services, which have been diverted from Stranraer Harbour to Cairnryan to reduce the distance of the sea crossing to Belfast and Larne. For passengers the traditional walk on – walk off market has largely disappeared as a result of low-cost airline operations and in any case, there is no rail connection to Cairnryan with only a bus link now provided.

There has been a rail connection to the port at Cairnryan in the past which has its origins in the creation of facilities in 1941 to act as an alternative port in the event of bombing rendering Liverpool and/or Glasgow unusable. A 6-mile branch was built and operated as a military railway which had extensive freight yards and locomotive servicing facilities. It did not survive network rationalisation and closed in 1965.

The past closure of the rail route between Dumfries and Stranraer, which included a branch line to Portpatrick, will require significant rail investment to reach a tunnel portal in the area as the remaining rail route between Ayr and Stranraer is a slow speed single line formation.

There was a similar drive for improved connectivity following the Irish Act of Union in 1800. In an era when communications were dependent on the written word, a project was established to speed up mail transits initially, with a road between London and Holyhead and later by the construction of the Chester and Holyhead Railway which opened in 1850.

Although Ireland is an independent nation there remain clear economic benefits in securing efficient transport links and the lack of consideration of potential connectivity between Holyhead and HS2 at Crewe is a concern.

For the Anglo-Scottish market, the West Coast and East Coast main lines have been continually upgraded and are fully electrified.  There is also the secondary non-electrified Glasgow and South Western route which has restricted capacity given its infrastructure characteristics including long single line sections.

Even after the opening of HS2 between London and Manchester, there will be restricted capacity on the West Coast main line as the two-track railway between Carlisle and Glasgow is highly utilised and the UCR will need to consider whether upgrading the GSW route or re-opening the Borders line between Carlisle and its current terminus at Tweedbank, near Galashiels, is the best option.

Track Laying at Shawfair as part of a 30-mile re-opening to reach Tweedbank in 2015 on the former Waverley route between Edinburgh and Carlisle. The line was used by 2 million passengers in 2019. 

Further south, connectivity between South Wales and London Paddington is provided by the Great Western main line which has traditionally linked London and the larger population centres along the route to South Wales but journey times are hampered beyond Cardiff with non-electrified infrastructure to Swansea and beyond.

From London Euston, Avanti provides services to the main stations on the North Wales route to Holyhead but little infrastructure investment has taken place to allow trains to run at their designed maximum speed.

In recent years there has been a focus on improving connectivity between North and South Wales but the trains have slow journey times and do not connect population centres that have economic synergy. The big gap is the lack of provision of trains serving towns in North Wales to provide access to employment opportunities and other services in North West England and the airports at Manchester and Liverpool.

The physical distance to reach Liverpool and Manchester would be regarded as an acceptable commute in London and the South East, but with journey times exceeding 2 hours this is clearly not the case in North Wales. As well as upgrading the coastal line there is a need to re-engineer the Chester – Warrington route to modern standards to provide higher speeds and increased capacity.

In addition, the route between Wrexham and Bidston has long been a candidate for integration with the Merseyrail network as it joins the West Kirby branch at Bidston, but it remains an unelectrified 27-mile section of line that as well as local passenger services, provides access to Shotton (Dee Marsh) steelworks which receives semi-finished materials by rail from the Margam plant in South Wales.

On 16th November the DfT issued a call for evidence to support the Union Connectivity Review with a closing date of 30th December 2020

The terms of reference for the UCR were published on the 5th October and require consideration to be given to the following:

  • The quality and reliability of major connections across the United Kingdom;
  • Likely current and future demand for transport links;
  • The environmental impact of policy options (including with regard to climate change); and
  • Existing work completed by the Government on cross-United Kingdom connectivity.

In carrying out this study, the Government has asked Sir Peter Hendy to consult widely with industry, the general public as well as relevant government agencies, including the Department for Transport and its modal teams, the Scotland Office, Wales Office, Northern Ireland Office, National Infrastructure Commission, alongside the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Governments, local authorities and their respective infrastructure commissions.

The call for evidence also invites the industry, academics, local authorities, engineering experts, and the general public to make submissions.

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