For communities in Sheffield, the Midland Mainline is best known as the rail link which connects the city with London St Pancras in little over two hours, providing a vital service for commuters and tourists alike.
And now public and private sector partners across Sheffield and the wider city region have come together to press the Government on their priorities for the East Midlands rail franchise.
The Department for Transport (DfT) is currently running a public consultation on the future of the franchise to ensure it delivers the best railway for passengers, communities and businesses.
That consultation period ends next Wednesday, 11 October, and a new franchise – potentially with a new operator – will come into force in August 2019, following a tendering process.
As key stakeholders in the East Midlands rail franchise, Sheffield City Region (SCR) Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive, Sheffield City Council and Sheffield Chamber of Commerce and Industry have come together to agree a list of the top ten priorities for the new franchise.
This list has been sent to the Department for Transport as a joint response to the consultation, alongside individual responses, to demonstrate a common voice for Sheffield and the City Region on the franchise.
Sir Nigel Knowles, chairman of the SCR LEP, said: “Here in Sheffield City Region we are already achieving transformational change and building a thriving, super-connected and successful economy.
“Transport links are an absolutely key part of this, and therefore it is crucial that the specification for the new franchise recognises that its area extends beyond the East Midlands and into South Yorkshire, including the vibrant core city of Sheffield.
“Myself and my co-signatories are united on the importance of the East Midlands franchise to Sheffield and the wider city region. The Midland Mainline provides the key link between Sheffield and London as well as the East Midlands, including Chesterfield, while the inter-regional service between Liverpool and Norwich links Sheffield to key regional cities, including Manchester and Nottingham.
“We were disappointed at the Government’s decision in July not to electrify the Midland Mainline from Kettering to Sheffield, and we are seeking to ensure that the new bi-mode trains can deliver the improved journey times and environmental performance that we expected from electrification.
“We now look forward to continued and constructive engagement with the Department for Transport and the new franchise operator to enhance the rail and station offer from the East Midlands franchise for Sheffield City Region.”
Councillor Julie Dore, leader of Sheffield City Council said: “Electrification of the Midland Mainline is vital for improving transport connectivity for Sheffield and as part of the new franchise the government should reverse their damaging decision to scrap it.
“There has rightly been much focus on creating a new HS3 line connecting towns and cities across the north, but there are also real improvements that need to be made now to our existing Midland Mainline service.
“There should be a regular journey-time of under two hours to London, a seven-day railway with better services throughout the day including early morning, peak times, evenings and weekends and significant improvements to Sheffield Midland station and maintain and improve barrier-free accessibility. Whilst at the same time we need to be planning for the future improvements needed to enable HS3 and HS2 services into Sheffield.”
The ten points sent to the DfT outline the priority areas of Midland Mainline services; bi-mode trains; improvement of the Liverpool-Norwich service; investment in Sheffield railway station; local railway services; customer service; weekend and Bank Holiday services; staffing of East Midlands trains; and the cost of rail fares.
Specific issues raised in the joint consultation response include calling for a reduction of journey times between Sheffield and London to below two hours, and giving consideration to extending some London – Sheffield services north to places such as Barnsley, Rotherham and possibly Leeds.
On the subject of the Hope Valley line, the letter cites concern over the “delay in delivering the Hope Valley Northern Hub upgrade scheme” and adds: “We hope this scheme can be approved and implemented as soon as possible to provide a third fast train path from Sheffield to Manchester, which is vital to improve the frequency of trains between these two major Northern cities.”
The letter calls for the Lincoln to Doncaster service to be increased “as the current five trains per day service is inadequate”, and also asks for additional services to stop at the commuter stations of Dronfield and Dore and Totley.
Better value fares between Sheffield and London are also cited as a priority, as many passengers from Sheffield currently travel to London via Doncaster rather than on the Midland Mainline.
Richard Wright, executive director of Sheffield Chamber of Commerce, said: “Good connectivity is a prerequisite for a strong economy and this franchise plays a fundamental part in the service we need to be successful going forward.
“We should not mix this up with discussions around HS2 and HS3, which are also necessary to address the capacity issues we are already experiencing.
“We would urge every business to feed into this consultation so the government understands how we, the business community, think how important this franchise is. We haven’t got long though!”
Stephen Edwards, Executive Director of South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive, added: “Railways are an important part of the transport mix in South Yorkshire. As well as faster services between Sheffield and London, we need to see faster and more frequent links to cities across the north, including Manchester and Liverpool.
“We also need to see better east – west links across the county, opening up the local rail network to greater work and leisure opportunities and making our railways a more attractive, sustainable travel option for everyone in South Yorkshire.”
Following the end of the public consultation, the DfT will consider all responses and then use them to inform the Invitation to Tender.
This Invitation to Tender is set to be published in April next year, with bids due in by July. A decision will be made in the spring of 2019, with the new franchise then beginning in August 2019.