Great British Railways HQ – what the shortlisted six have to offer

Birmingham city stock. Early Spring. Curzon Street station. Proposed HS2 Station location. Eastside.

Around forty communities stepped up and put their hats in the ring to become the new headquarters of the Great British Railways. Now the remaining six finalists have been announced. Birmingham, Crewe, Derby, Doncaster, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and York will compete to be crowned the home of Britain’s railways.

A public vote will be part of the selection process, as six cities – all in England – compete to host the Great British railways’ headquarters operation. Grant Shapps, transport minister – and one of the few ministers left standing after yesterday’s surprise cabinet resignations – made the announcement – on 5 July – about the same time as his parliamentary colleagues, including chancellor Rishi Sunak, were announcing their resignations. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t prove to be a good day to bury good news.

All-English shortlist

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has announced that Birmingham, Crewe, Derby, Doncaster, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and York will compete to become the home of Britain’s new railway management agency. They are the last standing communities that made it through the first round of selection, following a competition that drew applications from 42 towns and cities around the UK.

Has the time come for York to win out in the race to be headquarters of GBR?

The finalists are all in England. That has drawn speculation that the devolved governments in Scotland and Wales, who have both taken greater autonomy over the running of their domestic networks, have been deemed as marginal to the headquarters operation. However, GBR will have a relationship with Edinburgh and Cardiff in that cross-border services will still be managed by GBR, and infrastructure collaboration will be a daily matter. In any case, nowhere in Wales submitted a first-round bid.

Research and innovation centres

Birmingham is expected to be the bookies’ favourite. It is the northern terminus of HS2 and is already the closest to the capital. It answers the requirement of being easily accessible from London. More relevantly, it is the home of the Centre for Railway Research and Education at Birmingham University. However, Birmingham shares innovation credentials with Derby, the next nearest candidate city. Derby is unquestionably the UK’s railway technical hub and is much more of a ‘railway town’.

Derby made a strong case.

Historically, both Crewe and York have railway credentials going back to the very beginning of the industry. Both have connectivity to the national network beyond the immediate community’s needs – particularly Crewe, which was made by the railways. As a headquarters location, however, York is one of the prestige destinations in the UK. It’s also a significant training and education hub for railway personnel.

Birthplace of Flying Scotsman and Mallard

Doncaster on the East Coast Main Line has plenty of reasons to be confident of making the winning post. Belying its industrial perception, Doncaster is already home to several management centres for freight operations and supply chain facilities. It is also the historic home of the works that built some of the most famous locomotives in the world – including the Flying Scotsman and the record-breaking Mallard.

Doncaster has much to put forward as evidence of suitability to be the GBR HQ

Doncaster’s race for the winning post emulates its famous racecourse. Whether it proves to be a thoroughbred or an also-ran could be up to the citizens of the UK. The public vote will be open to the whole country, so it could be down to factors beyond the apparent railway appeal.

Emotive position of Newcastle

Could that public sentiment put the outsider on the podium and perhaps even in the gold medal position? Newcastle-upon-Tyne is the furthest from London and also the city furthest north among the shortlisted six. The Tyne and Wear area has been hardest hit by economic contraction and has probably lost more of its traditional industries than any other.

As part of the government’s commitment to level up the UK economy, the new GBR headquarters could be based in the North East and bring high-skilled jobs to Newcastle. The emotive position of Newcastle in the national psyche could bring home the outsider. Members of the public can choose the town or city they think makes the best case. However, the Transport Secretary will make the final decision later this year. Then again, given Tuesday’s self-imposed cabinet reshuffle, there may be a shortlist for whoever holds that portfolio at the time.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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