A retired Pacer carriage arrives at Airedale General Hospital to begin its new life supporting the community

Secretary of State Grant Shapps: 12 September, 2021

September, at least in our household, inevitably has something of a back to school feeling. But, before the memories fade completely into a sea of new uniform, gym kits and packed lunches, it’s worth taking a moment to look back at the past few months.

For many, this Summer provided the first dose of sun, sea, and sand for almost 2 years following the Government’s easing of travel restrictions. Not only has it allowed families to get away after months of lockdown; it has also brought much needed relief to the tourism industry. In fact, even as recently as this week, resorts from Blackpool to Bridlington were reporting brisk business as the North basked in 25 degree temperatures.

And with the boom in staycations, comes a need to continue the great strides we’ve made in the North when it comes to creating better links and improved infrastructure. Because, just as transport and travel helped the country cope during lockdown, distributing food and medicines and helping key staff get to work, now it is helping to accelerate our recovery and level up the region.

Last week, for example, we gave the go-ahead to electrify the railway between Wigan North Western and Bolton on the route to central Manchester. This £78 million scheme will not just allow the current diesel train fleet to ultimately be replaced by clean, quieter, electric stock; it will provide passengers with more seats, greater comfort, and improved reliability. Longer platforms will also be built to accommodate longer, trains, helping to reduce overcrowding at peak times and support increased demand from the new homes being built in the area.

The new line is just one part of a comprehensive overhaul of the railway across the North West. Widespread electrification and modernisation of the fleet – including 101 new trains on the Northern network in the past 18 months alone – are transforming the image of the region’s railway, and attracting new investment.

If the Wigan-Bolton line represents a shining future for the North’s railway, then another announcement this week closes the door on a widely reviled feature of its past. Last Sunday, the final retired Pacer train was lowered into the grounds of Airedale General Hospital in West Yorkshire to begin its new life as a centre providing support to families and friends visiting the hospital. The local NHS Trust won a DfT competition to “Transform a Pacer”, after the highly unpopular trains were finally taken out of service after over 3 million miles of service. They grew to became emblematic of a Northern railway that had been starved of investment for decades, but is now undergoing widespread renewal.

At least the story has a happy ending. Kirsty Randall, matron for the children’s ward at Airedale, said: “We’re really excited to have the carriage on site and can’t wait to start using it with our patients and their families. We’re planning on using the space for children and young people who need to be in hospital but not necessarily on the ward at all times.”

I speak a lot about rail in the North as I know how vital railway connectivity across the region is for the communities. But maintaining and improving the road network is just as high a priority for this Government as we move forward from Covid. After all, over the past 20 years, growth in car ownership per household in the North has significantly outstripped the rest of England. So, in August we announced a raft of measures to modernise the region’s roads, including money to upgrade traffic signals, and fix potholes in new, innovative ways, using technologies like drones and 3D printing.

The package, which councils in the North-West will benefit from, will improve the way traffic lights work, helping cut congestion, increase safety, and reduce vehicle emissions. It will also keep us at the forefront of technological developments in roads maintenance, which will help every type of road user, from bikers and cyclists to pedestrians.

Roads of the future will increasingly benefit from new technologies, none more important than the change to zero carbon motoring. With thousands of charging devices being installed on Northern roads, we’ve appointed a design team with a brief to create the chargepoint of the future – a design that we hope will become a new, iconic British emblem, like the red post box or telephone box.

And whilst I’m on the subject of green motoring, pumps throughout the North-West are now serving cleaner E10 petrol, which is compatible with more than 95% of all petrol vehicles. Blended with renewable ethanol, we expect E10 to slash the same volume of emissions that 350,000 cars produce in a year.

So, as the summer days end and we all settle back down into the familiar routine of school-runs, commutes and weekly shops rest assured that this Government is doing everything it can to make all your journeys in the North-West easier, cheaper and more efficient.