Chris Grayling is Secretary of State for Transport, and MP for Epsom and Ewell.
In the past, the A595 would never have been high on the priority list of Transport Secretaries. A winding road through the beautiful Cumbria countryside might attract the occasional question when Transport matters are discussed each month in Parliament, but seldom otherwise. Even the arrival of a parliamentary by-election in which local transport played a big role would not normally elevate a country road like that to the top of the priority pile.
But today’s transport challenges are very different to those of the past. The industrial strategy that we launched back in February needs more than smart investment in new technologies and skills. It needs the transport links that makes that investment possible. And whilst projects like the Stonehenge tunnel and HS2 grab the headlines, it’s roads like the A595 and its counterparts around the country that will be decisive in paving the way for the kind of local investment that will give us the technology, research and manufacturing centres that we need, and the balanced economy across our regions that will make this a country that works for everyone.
If you talk to people about their political priorities, it’s almost always issues like health, education and immigration that top the lists. But if you ask people about the things that would improve their daily lives, the responses are all about traffic jams and crowded trains. And the complaint that for far too long Governments have ignored the needs of our transport system. For business it’s the links that make the task of shipping goods to customers quick and easy. For the travelling public, it’s about a service they can trust.
The challenge is made more difficult by the rise in demand. More and more people are travelling. Trains are getting fuller. There are more and more cars on the roads. So we’re not just working to catch up. We are running to keep up.
But we are spending record amounts. Three billion pounds a year on our major roads. Another £3 billion on rail improvements. A billion pounds a year on local roads. Vital projects like the Ordsall Chord in Manchester will link Manchester’s two main railway stations for the first time and create the opportunity for a big expansion in services locally and across the Pennines. The improvements to the A14 will mean a step change in journeys from the East Coast to the Midlands. Crossrail and Thameslink will create a step change in capacity for London commuters. The long awaited dualling of the A1 in the North East is key to unlocking the potential of the region.
Of course there are frustrations. Crowded trains all too often mean delays at busy stations. Road improvements cause jams as construction work continues. Small problems can cause big delays. Not to mention the frustration of train strikes resisting the modernisation that will lead to better performance for the future.
And it will be the things that don’t make the headlines that will make the biggest and quickest difference. The Autumn Statement provided nearly £1.5 billion for those smaller projects. Junction improvements. Extra passing lanes. A new slip road. Last week ,we set out plans for the first 27 projects around the country. All to go alongside the things we are already doing – like longer trains and platforms and new trains to replace the antiquated carriages on parts of our network.
Trudy Harrison is already proving a great local MP for Copeland. But improving the A595 is about much more than promises made in a campaign. Her argument is about a road that unlocks the ambition for a big investment in nuclear power alongside Sellafield, and the potential for a big investment in mining locally can make a real difference to the economy of Cumbria and the North West. It’s a real example of the opportunity that exists to rebalance our economy.
Like many other investments, the local connections are key. You can’t build a major new plant if the roads are slow, narrow and congested. So key roads, like the A595, will be right at the top of our priority list as we make sure that the investments we all need to create the jobs and technologies of the future have the connections they need to make them possible.