Midlands Connect director Maria Machancoses told last week’s Midlands Transport Summit that this month marks a turning point for the region. ‘We’re here today to make ourselves heard,’ she said. ‘We’re not going to take no for an answer’

 
Maria Machancoses (right) with rail minister Andrew Jones (centre) at the launch of the Midlands Rail Hub

 

Number 10 Downing Street will have a new occupant later this month, and sub-national transport body Midlands Connect is planning to make a more vigorous case than ever before to the new prime minister.

Delivering the keynote address at Transport Times’ inaugural Midlands Transport Summit in Birmingham last week, the organisation’s director, Maria Machancoses, set out her expectations.

Originally from Valencia in Spain, Machancoses has worked in the Midlands as a transport planning specialist for more than 20 years. She helped to set up the Midlands Connect partnership in 2014.

But Machancoses is also a ‘middle child’, and she believes that this gives her something in common with the Midlands.

“Here in the Midlands we have a reputation for being nice,” she explained. “We’re the middle child stuck between two, high-maintenance siblings.

“On one side, there’s the favourite child, who’s very successful. She’s self-confident, popular, she gets the most pocket money from mum and dad, Her parents will tell anyone that will listen, that she has a bright future ahead of her. Then on the other side, there’s the strong willed sibling. He’s tough and out spoken. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He feels neglected by his parents, and wants them to invest in his future … He is unashamed in his pursuit of a better future.

“Then there’s the middle child … We’ve got a reputation for being nice. We don’t ask for much, just enough to get by. We’re polite and amenable. We don’t moan, or make a fuss. We don’t involve ourselves in disputes between our brother and sister. We’re kind of used to being side-lined by our parents – the Department for Transport and the Treasury. We’re used to them paying more attention to Sister London and Brother North.

“Don’t get me wrong, we love being part of the family. But now, we have to think about whether our nicey-nicey approach is working. The family dynamic needs to change.”

Machancoses continued: “I’ve had enough of having to justify our importance as a region. And enough of keeping quiet while our siblings argue over leftovers. I’m sick of being described as less sophisticated than my older sister, and not as outgoing as my younger brother. As of today, that changes.

We’re here today to speak up, as the Midlands, to ruffle a few feathers. We’re here today to make ourselves heard. We’re not going to take no for an answer.

“We’re here today to speak up, as the Midlands, to ruffle a few feathers. We’re here today to make ourselves heard. We’re not going to take no for an answer.”

From Lincolnshire to the Welsh borders, Midlands Connect has brought together LEPs, the West Midlands Combined Authority and councils to create a transport strategy for the whole region  – and its 10.1 millon citizens.
It’s never been done before.

There’s a lot of discussion about the region’s transport network and how to improve it. But while progress is being made, Machancoses says that the Midlands still doesn’t get the attention and recognition that it deserves.

She said that the recent Rethinking HS2 by the House of Lords illustrates this point. It contains 24 strategic recommendations about the future of the project – but the Midlands are not mentioned once.

“Not once!” exclaimed Machancoses. “The biggest and most defining infrastructure project of a generation. One that’s already transforming this great city. That will supercharge economic growth in the East Midlands. Creating tens of thousands of jobs. Yet the Midlands wasn’t mentioned once. That’s why our approach needs to change.”

Machancoses argued that it’s in the government’s interests to champion the Midlands, and that the region’s success is an important bellwether for the rest of the country. “When the Midlands succeeds, the UK succeeds,” she said.

The region is the advanced manufacturing centre of the UK. It led the industrial revolution and Machancoses believes that it can lead a “green revolution”, using its expertise and resources to tackle the biggest challenge facing the planet.

Businesses in the region are already showing leadership in this area. Rolls Royce is creating electric aircraft engines. In Derby, Bombardier has built self-charging, battery-operated trains. And near Coventry, the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre is engineering power cells for the next generation of electric vehicles.

But Machancoses said that this list of achievements and assets isn’t enough. Other meaningful changes are required.

We need to start talking about modal shift at a scale. We need to raise a generation of children that don’t see car ownership as a given or as a pre-requisite to their independence

“We need to start talking about modal shift at a scale,” she said. “We need to raise a generation of children that don’t see car ownership as a given or as a pre-requisite to their independence.”

Machancoses said that the railways will play a central role in efforts to improve social mobility and truly rebalance the Midlands economy. For this reason, Midlands Connect is passionate about HS2 and wants it delivered in its entirety to Manchester, Toton, Leeds and beyond. It also wants to strengthen the region’s east-west links, helping to develop economic relationships.

Last month, Midlands Connect released its plans for the Midlands Rail Hub. It’s a £2bn package of improvements across the network, creating space for faster, more frequent services from Birmingham to Leicester, Derby, Nottingham, Hereford, Worcester and beyond – bringing 1.6 million more people to within an hour of the region’s cities by public transport.

This plan includes new direct services between Coventry, Leicester and Nottingham for the first time in two decades.“Today, only 1% of people get the train between Coventry and Leicester,” said Machancoses. “Madness. The Rail Hub will change that.”

It currently takes 57 minutes to travel by train to Leicester and 99 minutes to travel to Nottingham. The Rail Hub proposes to reduce these journey times to 38 minutes and 63 minutes respectively – journey times that compare much more favourably with the car.

The Midlands Rail Hub will also make space for 36 extra freight paths a day, enabling the equivalent of 4,000 lorries’ worth of goods to be removed from the region’s congested roads.

“For residents, the Midlands Rail Hub means more attractive rail travel, access to more jobs, more places to live and visit,” said Machancoses. “For businesses, it means access to a wider pool of skilled staff and easier access to clients and collaborators.”

She contined: “When I talk about no more ‘Middle child Midlands’ this is what I mean. When I am asked, and I will be asked: ‘Surely the Midlands should focus on its local networks, they’re already at full capacity? Can’t you take the money set aside for HS2 and invest it in the Midlands Rail Hub instead?’ My answer is clear – No!”

If Lilian Greenwood was here … she would say this: ‘Do you think Londoners were asked to choose between Thameslink and Crossrail?’

Machancoses said that Lilian Greenwood, chair of the House of Commons Transport Select Committee and MP for Nottingham South, has been instrumental in championing the Midlands in Westminster: “If Lilian Greenwood was here … she would say this: ‘Do you think Londoners were asked to choose between Thameslink and Crossrail?’ Of course not. We shouldn’t have to choose. We need both HS2 and the Midlands Rail Hub. Not one or the other.”

Rail minister Andrew Jones welcomed the submission of Midlands Connect’s Midlands Rail Hub proposals during a visit to the region last month. “I support the aspiration to see far better connections right across the Midlands, east and west,” he said. “I know it’s ambitious, and we will work together to develop the business case and work with Midlands Connect to deliver it.”

Machancoses will be pushing for a stronger commitment. Concluding her address, she said: “This month marks a turning point for the Midlands. No longer, are we the forgotten, middle child, overshadowed by our siblings. No longer will we hide behind niceties … No longer will we fail to fulfil our social and environmental responsibilities.

“The Midlands needs investment. The Midlands deserves investment.”

 
This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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