Why Don’t We Just… Build better transport links?

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Most people would agree that better connectivity between the towns, cities, ports and airports of northern England would strengthen our collective offer to the world’s economy, boost growth, create more opportunity for more people and rebalance the UK’s economy by tackling the north-south divide.

Transport links need long-term planning and commitment by government to create the environment in which investors feel confident investing. Yet we often find ourselves not doing things most of us agree we should do.

When it comes to transport infrastructure, the north of England has thrown up precisely the kind of role models we need today. Consider the great Northumbrian George Stephenson and the Liverpool to Manchester Railway. No one had built an inter-city railway before. Merely to get the railway into Liverpool he’d have to make a cutting two miles long and a tunnel a mile-and-a-half long, which would run beneath a city. That had also never been done before, nor had anyone ever taken a railway over a wide area of bog – not to mention building 64 bridges and viaducts, all in the space of 35 miles. No one had ever made a railway run according to a timetable before either.

But Stephenson was brave enough not to allow the awesome scale of the enterprise to undermine his rational knowledge that it was possible. He was successful. And eight years after he built the first inter-city railway he and his son Robert Stephenson, with their great colleague, Yorkshireman Joseph Locke, had built railways all the way to London.

That’s just one example from history, but it’s how we should be thinking today. Where infrastructure is concerned, we face colossal challenges and we overcome them. This is why we have civil engineers – to design infrastructure and routinely find ways around what may have seemed like insurmountable obstacles.

Nowadays the challenges include avoiding major environmental degradation and the resulting human ill health. So civil engineers will design high-speed rail systems in such a way that they liberate extra space for rail freight, which in turn takes lorries off the road, which both alleviates traffic congestion and cuts CO2 emissions. They’ll rejuvenate the Manchester Ship Canal through the Atlantic Gateway and its associated developments of Liverpool 2, Port Warrington and Port Salford so we can move huge amounts of freight off roads and on to water, the least energy-intensive freight transport mode. And these are just two examples of what’s possible when it comes to better transport links for the north.

We need to unleash more of this practical problem-solving ingenuity. We all agree we want better transport links in the north. Politicians need to achieve consensus on the requirements, come up with the necessary funding and create the right conditions for private investment. We can leave the rest to civil engineers.

Darrell Matthews is North West regional director of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ice.org.uk)

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