Every business in Cumbria knows that the county’s transport infrastructure leaves a lot to be desired.
Back in January, we asked you how to fix it.
A total of 141 businesses completed our online questionnaire, telling us about congestion blackspots, poorly-maintained roads, inadequate parking, lack of public transport and trains that were late if they turned up at all.
And you told us about the priority transport schemes that could make life for Cumbrian businesses so much better.
The findings shaped our response to Transport for the North’s draft Strategic Transport Plan, a blueprint to improve transport across the north of England.
We’re calling for a major upgrade to the A595 and the coastal railway from Carlisle to Lancaster via Barrow, and for the delivery of priority road schemes such the Whitehaven Relief Road, Kendal Northern Access Route, Carlisle Southern Relief Road and Ulverston bypass.
We’re also asking Transport for the North to give serious consideration to Northern Tidal Power Gateways’ plan for crossings of Morecambe Bay and the Duddon Estuary, and to look at proposals to re-open the railway to Keswick.
Rob Johnston, Chief Executive of Cumbria Chamber of Commerce, said: “I’d like to thank all the businesses who responded to our survey.
“You helped inform our response to what is a crucially-important document.
“The Strategic Transport Plan isn’t just another report that will gather dust on a shelf in Whitehall.
“Transport for the North is the statutory body for delivering transport infrastructure across the Northern Powerhouse. It has the Government’s full support and its plan will shape transport policy for the next 30 years.
“It’s vitally important that the final version reflects the needs of Cumbrian businesses, and we hope our submission will ensure that it does.
“Effective transport links are vital part of the mix in raising productivity. Businesses are inevitably less productive if their staff or goods are stranded in traffic jams.”
The consultation on the draft Strategic Transport Plan closed on Tuesday.
You can read our response to the consultation in full below.
Cumbria Chamber of Commerce welcomes Transport for the North’s Strategic Transport Plan in principle.
We agree with its analysis that improved transport infrastructure is an important driver of economic growth and productivity, and we support the four key objectives set out on pages 12-13.
It’s vitally important that the final version reflects the needs of Cumbrian businesses, and we hope our submission will ensure that it does.
However, we are disappointed that the draft plan does not identify specific priority schemes to help deliver these objectives – we hope this omission will be rectified in the final version.
Cumbria faces a particular challenge around an ageing workforce. We will have 113,500 job vacancies to fill over the next 10 years – a combination of new jobs and replacements for those who retire or leave the county.
Unemployment along the M6 corridor is already very low – South Lakeland’s claimant count rate of 0.7% is among the lowest in the UK – and around half of Cumbrian businesses that attempt to recruit say that they struggle.
To meet these challenges, we have to grow our working-age population, boost the productivity of our workforce and encourage those in areas of higher unemployment to travel to jobs in more prosperous parts of the county.
All of these solutions require investment in transport infrastructure.
To quote the old adage, “time is money”. Time lost through inadequate transport infrastructure is stifling business growth.
Strategic development corridors
The plan’s approach of identifying strategic corridors (p60-75) is valid but the approach to selecting them appears arbitrary.
Cumbria appears in two of these corridors: ‘A’, Connecting the Energy Coasts; and the rail-only ‘F’ North West to Sheffield City Region.
In terms of ‘A’, no evidence-based rationale is offered for connecting nuclear assets in West Cumbria with wind energy developments in the North Sea.
We would agree – and the feedback we hear from businesses confirms it – that road and rail links between Cumbria and the North East are inadequate.
There are valid reasons for investment in east-west connections but they are not, primarily, related to the energy sector.
To frame the case purely in terms of energy might weaken the case.
Regarding corridor ‘F’, we advocate improved rail links between Cumbria and Manchester Airport, in particular the reinstatement of through journeys from Barrow-in-Furness and Windermere that have been reduced in number.
The Strategic Transport Plan isn’t just another report that will gather dust on a shelf in Whitehall.
However, our priorities for rail in Cumbria remain ensuring that HS2 trains to London call here and improving the coastal line from Carlisle to Lancaster via Barrow-in-Furness.
Upgrades to this line to enhance capacity and reduce journey times will enable NuGen and West Cumbria Mining deliver potentially transformational projects.
The report identifies four ‘prime capabilities’ of the regional economy – digital, energy, health innovation and advanced manufacturing.
We would add a fifth: tourism.
Tourism is hugely important to Cumbria.
According to Cumbria Tourism’s research it is worth £2.72bn a year to the county’s economy and supports 36,000 FTE jobs.
Its importance is likely to grow after the Lake District was inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 2017.
Tourism is vitally important in other parts of the North too. The region is home to five national parks and the UK’s most-visited holiday resort, Blackpool.
Fit-for-purpose transport infrastructure is crucial to the success of tourism. Visitors are less likely to come if getting to their destination is onerous or if they have difficulty in moving around once they get here.
The Strategic Plan needs to have greater cognizance of the value of tourism and its demands on transport infrastructure.
There is a danger that, in concentrating on the ‘prime capabilities’, we neglect businesses in other sectors.
Cumbria has world-class advanced manufacturing businesses – the likes of BAE Systems, Pirelli and Innovia Films, for example – and is a global leader in nuclear decommissioning, but the vast majority of businesses in the county aren’t in any of the four prime capability sectors or their supply chains.
Investment in transport infrastructure will help almost any business, and especially so in Cumbria where the topography of the county, our dispersed population and the distance from major cities, present particular challenges.
Reducing traffic congestion
This is a major issue for businesses in Cumbria – 62% of those responding to our survey said that traffic congestion was a problem for them.
It is a major drag on productivity. People are not productive when they are stuck in traffic jams.
There are two particular blackspots that the Strategic Plan should address:
The A595 between Carlisle and Sellafield;
The A591 between Grasmere and Windermere, along with the A5074 from Windermere to Bowness;
Improving the A595, including construction of a Whitehaven Relief Road, will be essential if a new nuclear power station is built at Moorside.
The A595 cannot cope with the current level of traffic. Businesses fear gridlock if traffic levels increase without measures to enhance capacity.
The A591 is the main access road through the Lake District National Park. Congestion on this vital artery degrades the visitor experience.
Conventional improvements – such as an upgrade to dual carriageway – would not be appropriate in such a sensitive environment – therefore a different approach is needed.
Options include improved public transport to encourage visitors make less use of their cars, and consideration of Windermere Town Council’s proposal for a high quality park-and-ride scheme.
Other congestion blackspots include the A66, the A590 through Ulverston, the A69 in Carlisle, Kendal town centre and Carlisle city centre.
The urban pinch points above would be alleviated by the proposed Kendal Northern Access Route, Carlisle Southern Relief Road and Ulverston bypass, which we see as key priorities.
The Government is committed to upgrading the A66 between Penrith and Scotch Corner to a dual carriageway. TfN should promote improvements to the A66 west of Penrith, particularly between Workington and Cockermouth.
Unlocking economic opportunity
Eastern Cumbria benefits from good north-south transport links with the M6 and the West Coast Main Line passing through the county.
It is no coincidence that communities along this corridor are relatively prosperous with low levels of unemployment.
In contrast Barrow and West Cumbria have higher unemployment and pockets of severe deprivation, despite the presence of BAE Systems in Barrow and the nuclear industry in West Cumbria.
Improved transport links to these areas can provide a stimulus to deliver more inclusive growth.
For example, upgrading the A595 to dual carriageway between Carlisle and Sellafield would – by significantly shrinking journey times – create a single travel-to-work and travel-to-learn area, allowing people in West Cumbria to take advantage of work and learning opportunities in Carlisle, and vice versa.
Similarly, Northern Tidal Power Gateways’ proposal for road crossings of Morecambe Bay and the Duddon Estuary could be transformational.
It would slash journey times to Barrow and Millom and, with an upgrade to the A595, could create a coastal highway providing better access to West Cumbria including Sellafield and the proposed nuclear power plant at Moorside.
By offering an alternative route to West Cumbria, this coastal route would relieve pressure on the A66 and make relatively remote western Lake District valleys, such as Wasdale and Eskdale, more accessible to visitors.
The tidal gateways project would also generate electricity from tidal flows and could carry high-voltage power lines to Moorside, which would otherwise need a purpose-built tunnel under Morecambe Bay.
We believe that this scheme is a potential game changer for Cumbria and deserves thorough investigation.
The proposed Kendal Northern Access Route and Carlisle Southern Relief Road would also unlock economic opportunity, the latter being a key part of the plan for 10,000 new homes at St Cuthbert’s Garden Village.
An upgrade to the A69 between Carlisle and Hexham would improve links to Newcastle and, crucially, its regional airport.
Although the high-speed rail line from London will stop south of Wigan, HS2 trains will continue north to Glasgow and Edinburgh on existing tracks.
The Draft Strategic Plan says that railway stations on the West Coast Main Line – including Carlisle, Penrith and Oxenholme in Cumbria – must “be ready to accommodate HS2 services from the day of opening”.
It omits to mention that HS2 proposes that trains from London will pass through Cumbria without stopping, forcing passengers to change at Preston.
We believe that would damage the county’s economy.
It strikes us as bizarre that a county with two World Heritage sites, two national parks and a nationally-significant infrastructure project, Moorside, should be deemed underserving of direct HS2 services to London.
While journey times to the capital would be reduced by HS2, the enforced change at Preston introduces the possibility of missed connections.
A change of trains would deter tourists with luggage and business users who like to work without interruption.
65% of those responding to our survey expect their businesses to suffer if HS2 services from London don’t stop in Cumbria.
Through HS2 services from Cumbria to London should be part of the Strategic Plan and TfN should lobby for HS2 trains to observe the existing stopping pattern. At present, all southbound and all but one northbound London trains call at Carlisle, and most call either at Oxenholme or Penrith.
Coastal rail line
The coastal rail line from Carlisle to Lancaster via Workington, Whitehaven, Sellafield and and Barrow-in-Furness is in dire need of modernisation.
The 40-mile journey from Carlisle to Whitehaven takes more than an hour while the 85-mile journey from Carlisle to Barrow takes almost three hours, almost as long as the 300-mile journey from Carlisle to London.
This coastal route connects four of Cumbria’s five largest communities, its two largest employers – BAE Systems and Sellafield Ltd – and the nationally-significant infrastructure project for a nuclear power station at Moorside.
A faster, more frequent and reliable service could unlock travel-to-work and travel-to-learn opportunities, particularly between West Cumbria and Carlisle.
75% of respondents to our survey expressed dissatisfaction with the existing rail service in Cumbria, and the bulk of complaints related to this line.
The service is slow and unreliable, with trains prone to arriving late or not at all – some are hauled by locomotives dating from the early 1960s.
The line also suffers from capacity constraints caused by single-line sections and Victorian-era signalling.
Capacity must be increased to cope with the extra passenger and freight traffic created by the proposed nuclear power station at Moorside and West Cumbria Mining’s plan to extract coking coal at Whitehaven.
Other transport issues
The number of through trains from Barrow-in-Furness and Windermere to Manchester Airport has been reduced in recent years. Reinstatement of these would benefit all sectors – tourism in particular.
TfN should investigate reopening the railway from Penrith to Keswick, given the success of the Borders Railway between Edinburgh and Tweedbank in the Scottish Borders, which reopened in 2015.
Passenger numbers there have exceeded expectations and the line has created work and training opportunities. For example, applications to study at Borders College from students in mid and east Lothian have jumped by 74%.
Businesses responding to our survey raised matters outside the scope of TfN’s Strategic Plan such as inadequate road maintenance, lack of parking, the high cost of parking and a lack of bus services especially in the evenings and on Sundays, which can prevent people from taking up employment opportunities.
We mention these issues to emphasise the need for joined-up thinking on transport matters – infrastructure cannot be seen isolation.
A selection of comments from businesses that completed our questionnaire.
On traffic congestion:
“My business is in Ambleside. If there is ever a hold up because of lights on the Windermere-Ambleside road [A591] it causes chaos.
“This leaves customers very cross at the additional journey time and does not help either me or my staff trying to get to or home from work. Something has be done. The Lake District cannot cope with the traffic it currently has.”
“Traffic in Kendal is a problem, particularly when the M6 is shut. It once took one of our guests six hours to drive from Penrith to our B&B on the northern edge of Kendal.”
“I have a 23-mile commute [on the A595] from Seascale to Workington. Getting stuck behind slow-moving vehicles is a fact of life.
“If there is an accident I am often diverted, which can result in very lengthy delays. The worst delay meant that the journey took me just under two hours. As a result I am sometimes late opening with the potential of lost sales.”
“The A66 between Keswick and Penrith is very slow and if there is a traffic incident the road can be closed for several hours. This hampers visitors getting to Keswick and delays deliveries reaching us.”
“Lack of dual carriageways on the A66 and A595 hinders all traffic. One minor accident can bring half the county to a standstill.”
“Between Carlisle and Whitehaven along the A595 – the volume of traffic along this route on a single carriage way can double or triple journey times.”
“The A595 between Bigrigg and the Distington bypass is a nightmare at peak times. This affects us particularly.”
“The whole of the A595 is a problem. If I’m visiting clients in the south of the county I set off 30 minutes early just in case – that’s 30 minutes’ lost work.”
“Ulverston is blighted by the main road [A590] that passes through it. It has long been my thought that a by-pass would be beneficial.”
“Ulverston needs a bypass, it can become gridlocked and all those huge lorries should not be going through the centre.”
“Something has to be done. The Lake District cannot cope with the traffic it currently has. The coaches last summer parked everywhere and on double yellow lines. There was too much traffic, I expect it will be worse this year.”
On unlocking economic opportunity:
“There needs to be an alternative route to get to the west coast of Cumbria – a road link across Morecambe Bay, connecting with the new Bay Gateway link road at Heysham, would be a quantum leap in Cumbria’s infrastructure.”
“We know that 81% of visitors access the county by car. We must improve connectivity to enable visitors to move around the county to ensure they have a positive experience and seek to return. Good road links are critical.”
“With a significant volume of visitors and relatively small and ageing population, alongside issues of unaffordable housing, it is key that we make it easy for potential employees to travel throughout the county – east-to-west in particular, as well as from new proposed housing developments.”
“A better link to West Cumbria – A595 and a bridge across Morecambe Bay – it’s difficult to get reliable supplies as many companies aren’t prepared to take a 100-mile diversion into a cul-de-sac to deliver their products. We would be able to source more competitively if road links were improved.”
“The Northern Tidal Power Gateway across Morecambe Bay is not only a huge green power initiative, it is a massive infrastructure boost cutting journey times to the west coast, relieving congestion and creating a world-leading tidal turbine manufacturing base in the North West.”
“The Whitehaven Relief Road would be a good starting point as would bypassing Bigrigg village. Shorter journey times would improve our efficiency thus benefiting our business hugely.”
“I would love to see the A595 upgraded to dual carriageway. The A595 can be very slow moving – a journey to Carlisle can take you either 30 minutes to well over an hour depending on traffic.”
“Support and maintain the South Cumbria rail link to Manchester Airport, provide better rolling stock on the line from Lancaster to Barrow, make more of the A590 dual carriageway, support the initiative to create a tidal power installation and road link across Morecambe Bay and the Duddon to open up the west coast – all of these would improve transport links for South Cumbria, and help businesses to recruit into the area.”
“Improving the route from the west coast of Cumbria to the south of Cumbria and M6 junction 36 would increase our competitiveness in the marketplace and improve the value we are able to deliver for clients.”
“Building new roads in the Lake District is not the answer. We need to discourage personal car usage and encourage commuters and visitors to use public transport to reduce congestion. The A595, however, is an essential route and does need enhancements, namely dual carriageway sections.”
“Kendal desperately needs a Northern Development route. Kendal grinds to a halt when traffic is diverted through town – three lanes of motorway traffic have to go over two bridges, one of which is one-way.”
“Kendal Northern Relief Road is a must if the economy of Kendal is to grow.”
“We work with a large employer located off Shap Road [in Kendal]. The Kendal Northern Relief Road would massively improve efficiency for both businesses.”
“A bridge over Morecambe Bay and the Duddon Estuary to improve journey times and reduce costs would also boost tourism around Morecambe Bay and be of economic and social benefit to Barrow, Millom and the west coast.”
“Better road structures for the west coast to open the opportunities there. Quicker access to the North East by dualing longer stretches [of the A69] would improve journeys. Similarly, the proposed southern relief road [for Carlisle] will open opportunities with the west coast.”
“In order for Carlisle to thrive and benefit from the extra house building underway, the southern bypass has to be completed and also has to be ultimately upgraded to a dual carriageway.”
On HS2 trains not stopping in Cumbria:
“Why bypass the second largest English tourist destination outside of London? Madness. We have international customers who would love such a service.”
“Not stopping in Cumbria is crazy. A big inconvenience and hugely disruptive on journeys to London. Cumbria needs better transport links and economic growth, not economic penalties.”
“This will be an absolute disaster for Cumbria and the tourist industry. Increasingly, our guests are from overseas and it is always difficult to negotiate a transport system in another language. Preston [station] is very confusing and difficult to negotiate with any amount of luggage. I cannot emphasise too strongly that we must fight this idea with all the powers we have.”
“We are a global player, we need high speed access to cities. This service must have a Cumbrian stop.”
“It is imperative that HS2 includes stops in Cumbria. We know that when visitors, carrying luggage, need to change trains it has a negative impact on their decision to travel.”
“It would be insane for HS2 to bypass Cumbria, which has a vibrant business community, not simply a tourist destination. The decision-makers in Whitehall need to get that fact through their thick heads.”
“It would be a missed opportunity to capitalise on the Lake District becoming a World Heritage Site. Cutting out Carlisle could negatively impact upon its economic growth.”
“We need to encourage more international visitors to stop off on their way to Scotland. This proposal would worsen the situation.”
“The Lake District National Park should have an HS2 stop. Possibly the biggest tourist destination in the whole of the UK. This is a no brainer… or just very short sighted.”
“We are building a new training centre, which will be five minutes’ walk from Carlisle railway station. This will have an effect on our intake.”
“As a tourist attraction working with international customers, we need travel [to Cumbria] to be as easy as possible. Changing trains isn’t easy for those whose first language is not English.”
“This is a ludicrous situation. Carlisle station has the capacity and population to justify HS2 stopping. The number of businesses doing more and more trade in the south will continue to grow if the link to London is improved.”
On the Cumbrian Coast rail line:
“The trains are completely unreliable, there are a huge number of cancellations at short notice and regularly late trains. The rolling stock is awful and way behind the times. We do business in 34 countries and have international visitors every week. We cannot rely on the train to transport visitors as it is so unreliable.”
“The Carlisle-Barrow route is slow, hugely unreliable, lacks basic services (working toilets, catering outlets, weather-proof waiting areas…). It’s quite frankly an embarrassment that this serves one of the main nuclear sector clusters and tourism destinations in the country.”
“A lot of the Cumbrian Coast Line is single track railway, limiting the number of trains that can be scheduled. This forces people to use cars on already congested roads. Speed restrictions also lead to people choosing cars instead.”
“The West Cumbria line is inadequate. Trains rarely run on time and are very primitive.”
“Reliability is poor, particularly the West Cumbria line which is used regularly by my company. Connection times can also be difficult.”
“The direct service to Manchester Airport from Barrow needs to be more frequent and should be protected. The rolling stock needs to be improved and the service made more frequent.”
“Direct connections to Manchester reduce year on year. The carriages also seem to be getting older stock – poorly equipped for the disabled, elderly, families or even cyclists.”
“The line from Carlisle to Barrow often has delays or trains cancelled so staff and students can’t make connections to Whitehaven. Sunday services, for anyone travelling to start work early on Monday, are virtually non-existent.”
“Some of the rolling stock is obsolete and the services infrequent. This means that in most cases car travel is the better option.”
“There are large gaps in the schedule, two-to-three hours in the morning and afternoon where there isn’t a single train. This means that any meetings with people from elsewhere must be scheduled around them. Connections can sometimes involve a wait of an hour or more which can add significantly to travel time. This makes clients less likely to visit.”
“Travel time between Carlisle and Whitehaven is over an hour. Rolling stock are old Pacer units or older diesel-hauled locomotives. 40-year-old trains don’t serve the purpose. A lot of the line is single track limiting the timetabling of trains and there are speed restrictions on large portions of track.”
“Having taken four hours to get from Barrow to Carlisle on an overcrowded, miserable train, I won’t rush to use it again. I can drive it in an hour-and-a-half via the M6. Cancelled regularly or running late – Third World service.”
On other transport issues:
“Parking is a major problem in Keswick. Drivers looking for spaces add to congestion. If visitors can’t park they’ll often go elsewhere. Pay and display parking is expensive compared with other parts of the county, which is unfair.”
“Inadequate public transport increases difficulties in recruiting and removes the option for the visitor to leave the car behind.”
“Parking in Ambleside is very restricted. My staff often have to drive around or 30 minutes trying to find somewhere to park.”
“Keswick has been without a rail connection for 45 years. This is totally unacceptable. People should have the choice to not bring their own cars to Keswick. The bus services are inadequate and not a worthy alternative.”
“Reopening the line from Penrith to Keswick. We need a non-car low emission link to the northern Lakes. This would bring in more visitors, reduce congestion and improve the visitor experience.”
“Poor [public] transport means we struggle to recruit staff from outside Grasmere/Ambleside. It’s difficult even to get anyone to travel from Keswick.”
“Our business is being strangled by inadequate parking.”
“Parking is a deterrent to tourist spend. Lack of public transport service means that staff recruitment becomes more difficult for access to employment opportunities.”
Parking costs are a nightmare. People won’t come in and shop because of the costs and length of time they are allowed to park on the road.”
“All car parks should be made pay-on-departure therefore enabling people to stay as long as like, especially in towns like Keswick where paying on arrival means that people stay for a shorter time.”
“Desperately inadequate public transport means staff from close by need three buses and a long walk to get to work. This reduces productivity as they cannot physically get to the office before 9 o’clock and need to leave again at 3.30pm. The options for people who need to drop kids off at school are even worse.”
“Public transport needs to be expanded, particularly into the evening so that the leisure and tourist economy can flourish.”