Routes to growth: The importance of the Midlands being globally connected

Renowned as the centre of the UK transport network, the Midlands plays an integral part in connecting the country and enabling economic growth. Professor Kamil Omoteso, Pro Vice-Chancellor Dean of the College of Business, Law and Social Sciences at the University of Derby, explains why it is vital the Midlands becomes even better connected to enable the region to succeed on the world stage.

The Midlands is home to more than 10 million people and has a staggering £50 billion export economy. Boasting two international airports and global companies such as Rolls-Royce, Toyota and Bombardier, the region is the heartbeat of the UK transport network.

However, our roads and rail services are struggling to keep up with the demands of our ever-increasing number of passengers and vehicles. In 2017-18, more than 154 million people entered, exited and changed trains in the West Midlands, with a further 45 million people interchanging at stations in the East Midlands. Over 327 billion vehicle miles were estimated to have been driven in the UK in 2017-18 – an increase of 0.4% on the previous year.

These statistics are a small insight into the significant landscape of transportation and travel in our region and country. If we are to attract further inward investment, boost tourism, trade and jobs, it is crucial our transport networks and infrastructure can match the increasing demand, and to do this we need to ensure our region has reliable transport links.

Improving rail access

The government’s decision to scrap the electrification of the Midlands Mainline for three key routes of the UK rail network last year was a blow to the region. Not only would this have helped reduce air pollution in our cities, it would have ensured lighter, faster trains were bracing the tracks, enabling quicker and more reliable journey times for passengers.

However, while this debate continues, it is pleasing to see other key developments taking place in our region to develop our rail corridor.

The Midlands Rail Hub, a 20-year strategy drawn up by regional transport agency Midlands Connect, plans to improve services between Birmingham and Nottingham, slashing train times and increasing train frequency.

Dubbed the “flagship plan to future-proof the Midlands’ rail network for generations to come,” the Rail Hub could create space for six million more journeys a year and shift the equivalent of 4,300 lorries a day from the roads by 2040.

Without a doubt, the plan is ambitious. However, this blueprint sets the strategic direction needed if we are to seriously support the region’s economic growth, and support our businesses and commuters.

I welcome the plans and believe they will provide answers to most of the questions that have been raised on low carbon energy, the green economy and sustainability, while enhancing accessibility to, and quality of life in, the region.

HS2 also has a crucial part to play in radically improving connectivity between the East and West Midlands and the rest of the country.

While there has been debate about HS2 being at the expense of regional rail investment, I believe the two major projects complement one another and are both crucial in boosting connectivity and in ensuring people have greater access to areas of work where earning power is increasing.

Improvements to our roads

Congestion is costing the region billions of pounds each year. The Midlands Motorway Hub, in collaboration with Highways England, aims to solve congestion issues and unreliable journey times. The report sets out 10 key recommendations which, if delivered, could “unlock up to 50,000 new jobs and 50,000 new homes, by reducing travel costs and delays and improving the productivity of Midlands businesses.”

The British economy requires an efficient service, and with uncertainty looming due to Brexit, it has never been more imperative to ensure improvements are made, funding is in place and support from government is secured. I am keen to see how, over the next 20 years, improvements such as those planned for the M6 are delivered.

Transport can grow economies – we just need to shout louder

While significant developments to support rail and road improvements are underway, a key bridge to cross is increasing awareness of what the Midlands has to offer.

Better connectivity will help boost tourism, trade relations and create more business opportunities and, by extension, will generate jobs for the region. This is of particular advantage to universities as it will help enhance graduate employability and social mobility, meaning a boost to the local economy and UK as a whole.

At the University of Derby, our Colleges of Engineering and Technology and Business, Law and Social Sciences have transport and logistics truly embedded in their domain in terms of teaching, research, innovation and knowledge exchange programmes. We have strong relationships with our key stakeholders but, as a region, we need to work even harder to expand our business opportunities and unlock our economic growth.

“The Midlands is the beating heart of our nation,” according to Sir John Peace, Chairman of Midlands Connect. But in order to truly succeed with the region’s transport ambitions, this needs to be known across the globe.