The home of Great British Railways – Stephenson’s Rocket

Last Monday the rain came down like stair rods.  I dashed to Central Station, umbrella aloft, to welcome (current) Transport Minister Wendy Morton.  She hadn’t brought an umbrella, and always one to put chivalry ahead of politics, I found myself huddling under my umbrella with a Tory Rail Minister at a time of national rail crisis.  The things I do for this job.  We walked through the rain bouncing off the pavement to the nearby Common Room, formerly the Mining Institute. 

Great British Railways is looking for a home.  GBR is the new body that will oversee train operators, infrastructure and stations.  It’s not taking the rail network fully into public ownership, mind, which it should.  Too much of Britain’s infrastructure is run for profit but owned by foreign governments.  That’s part of the reason energy and transport are so much more expensive in the UK.  But I digress.

We were there to persuade the minister to choose Newcastle for GBR’s home.  Part of the process is a public vote – if you haven’t already, please vote online for Newcastle. 

Talented local poet Papi Jeovani set the scene.  Members of the local investment team made the financial and logistical case.  I made the strategic and historic case, avoiding puns about being “on the right track”. 

Flashback 18 years, I said, and I was on honeymoon.  My wife and I walked around the agora in Athens.  Pnyx hill, near the Acropolis, was the ancient meeting place of Athens’s citizens.  The ‘bema’ – stone platform – is still there.

I stood on it, in the footsteps of giants.  I imagined Pericles giving the funeral speech for those lost in the Peloponnesian war.  The Athenian citizens choosing to reject tyranny and embrace democracy.  It gave me goosebumps.  It’s like the history rises up from the ground and you feel it through your feet. 

The site we’re offering for Great British Railways is the exact place Stephenson and his engineers built the Rocket and the Locomotive two centuries ago.  Not across the city, or nearby; the exact place.  Other cities may have connections, but, like the Pnyx and democracy, this is where it really started. And, like democracy, it changed the world.  If you want to inspire the workers at GBR, this is its spiritual home. 

The North of Tyne is by far the geographically largest Combined Authority.  Yet we don’t have a single mile of three lane motorway.  You can’t get from North to South or East to West by dual carriageway.  If the Department of Transport had been in Newcastle, we’d miraculously have a great road network.  It would just have been on their radar. 

The Climate Emergency dictates thinking beyond mass road building.  Bringing GBR to Newcastle will give the North East the attention we need to redress decades of underinvestment. 

We have the Tyne & Wear Metro – Britain’s second biggest light rail system, with a new fleet of trains being built right now.  Our office space is cheaper than other cities, and in the heart of a transport hub. 

There’s the Hitachi rail factory just down the road.  We’re leading Europe on battery technology to decarbonise transport.  There are 3000 rail workers already in the region.  Four excellent universities within a few miles, and a University Technical College right on the site.  What better way to inspire those students than to be learning right next door to the home of GBR?  

Our commitment to zero-carbon transport is unwavering.  I’ve spoken to dozens of Ministers and Secretaries of State to get transport powers devolved.  Our plans for fully-integrated public transport are ambitious.  I don’t own a car, and get around using public transport, walking and cycling.  (I have a clean driving license, just in case you’re wondering!)  

And it’s Great British Railways – not Great English Railways.  Choosing Newcastle shows Scotland that we want to keep our union.  I don’t want passport controls at Berwick. 

But ultimately, it’s a political decision, and a Conservative politician will make it.  It’s a test of whether they’re serious about levelling up. 

The public vote to back Newcastle is open until Monday 15th August – please vote and prompt your family and friends too.