Laying the tracks for regional growth?

As recovery continues to beckon for the construction industry, the focus has turned to regional development in a bid to re-balance the UK’s increasingly London-centric economy.
A series of high profile infrastructure schemes are now underway with the aim of kick-starting growth and regeneration in cities across the country.

Last week, Network Rail unveiled a five-year plan to invest £38 billion in rail infrastructure, targeting the busiest parts of Britain’s train network in a bid to generate growth, create jobs and boost business.

The plan, which runs from 2014 to 2019, covers the construction of new tracks, the renovation of stations, including Birmingham New Street and Manchester Victoria, and the upgrade of existing lines. It also includes a 20% increase in the capacity of London’s commuter trains.

Nick Elliott, Network Rail’s southern regional director for infrastructure projects, said: “The number of people travelling by rail has more than doubled in the last decade and is predicted to grow by a further 400 million by 2020.

“To help meet this growth in demand, our plans for the next five years will help deliver a 20% increase in the number of seats into London at the busiest times of day.”

The Southern Multifunctional Framework of the infrastructure programme commenced on 1 April, with VolkerFitzpatrick, Costain, BAM Nuttall and Geoffrey Osborne selected to work with Network Rail’s regional infrastructure projects business on the Anglia, Kent, Sussex and Wessex routes.

The framework agreements cover almost half of Network Rail’s £2.5 billion work bank for the region, delivering longer platforms for longer trains on key commuter routes, station enhancements, new footbridges to improve accessibility and upgrades to bridges, embankments and tunnels to increase the resilience of the infrastructure in some of the most intensely-used parts of Britain’s rail network.

Other Network Rail projects still to be awarded include the London Underground Northern Line extension and the electrification of the East Coast Main Line between Wood Green and Bawtry.

The politically divisive High Speed 2 (HS2) rail link, intended to strengthen London’s links with the north, also continues to make headlines. The HS2 Growth Taskforce Report, published last month, claimed the line will improve the viability of major cities in the Midlands and the North of England, enabling them to compete globally.

However, anti-HS2 campaigners argued that the report demonstrates that the project will need even more investment if it is to bring real benefits to the regions. Penny Gaines, chair of Stop HS2, said: “Simply building a fast train to London is not going to regenerate the areas in the North and Midlands which need it.

“It’s always been clear that creating regeneration would take many more billions than the current £50 billion price tag of HS2.”

As high profile rail projects such as HS2 continue to dominate the press, other major infrastructure projects are beginning to gather pace.

The Highways Agency has invited 35 contractors or joint ventures to tender for its £5 billion collaborative delivery framework to procure large parts of the managed motorway programme, deliver projects such as the A14 upgrade and coordinate other improvement work.

Seven contractors will fight it out for the high-value lot on schemes worth between £100 million and £450 million: Balfour Beatty Civil Engineering; BAM Nuttall / Morgan Sindall JV; Bouygues TP; Carillion Construction; Costain; Skanska Construction UK and Laing O’Rourke Construction, with returns expected by the end of May.

Increasing UK airport capacity is also high on the government’s agenda, with an independent Airports Commission established in autumn 2012 to examine ‘options for maintaining the UK’s status as an international hub for aviation’. The commission released an interim report in December 2013 and is set to make final recommendations following the 2015 General Election.

The three short-listed options currently proposed include adding a third runway and terminal building at Heathrow, lengthening an existing runway at Heathrow, and a new runway at Gatwick.

While infrastructure projects such as these remain highly contentious, particularly with environmental groups, it is clear that the UK’s transport network will need to be improved to support future economic growth. The question remains whether the plans will provide a much needed boost to regional economies or simply further bolster London’s financial dominance.

Do you believe the coalition’s infrastructure plans will benefit the whole country or will London remain the economic winner?