Extending the Island Line
For me, the ultimate goal for Island Line would be the extension to both Newport and Ventnor. There are significant problems with both. However, we have a generational chance to re-examine both routes and to see if they would be feasible.
Extending the railway track into Newport Harbour would require greater integration with the Isle of Wight Steam Railway and, even with passing places, would require a track sharing agreement. The line from Wootton would need to be extended by nearly three miles, and a new route into Newport found. However, the Steam Railway have long-term aspirations to extend both into Ryde St Johns and to Newport, so there is certainly the potential for closer working and the extension of existing lines. A new station in Newport would link our county town with Ryde, and ease congestion on the Fairlee Road. It would also support Newport Harbour regeneration.
Regarding Ventnor, getting the train back into the town would help the town and help connect it better with the east of the Island. It may also be an integral part of any attempt to attract a national arts institution to Ventnor. However, there will be issues about potential routes through or around Wroxall, as well as access to the tunnel.
With both, if there is a desire to see the routes extended, we should look to secure a feasibility study to offer an up-to-date assessment of the potential costs and opportunities of either extension.
Thanks to the foresight of a previous Council, the Island is rapidly moving to having the best roads in Britain. Almost all are being rebuilt or resurfaced in the seven year core investment period stipulated by the Highways PFI (Island Roads). However, we need a new bridge over the Medina, just north of Newport.
There is more too that we can do with cycle routes. We have made good progress in recent years, the credit of which should go to groups such as CycleWight, Natural Enterprise and the Council. However, it is a realistic aspiration for us to become Britain’s leading cycling destination. Cycle routes, by transport standards, are cheap. Encouraging cycling for Islanders and visitors makes sense. The advantages on the Island are overwhelming. Nine out of ten islanders work on the Island, and many] work within a mile and a half of their home. Some 14 percent of the 2.4 million visitorsto the Island use cycling or walking as their main mode to explore the Island.
Cycling also brings significant health benefits. That is important as we have some chronic health issues here. In 2014 the Isle of Wight Council’s Public Health Team reported a 4.1 percent rate for chronic heart disease against a national average in England of 3.4 percent. Our rates for high blood pressure, at 16.7 percent, are higher than the English national average of 13.6 percent, and we have a higher chance of suffering a stroke against the national average (3.1 percent against 2.54 percent in England). Obesity is a growing concern. It is estimated around 65 percent of residents on the Isle of Wight are currently overweight. The occasional dangers of cycling on the road are outweighed by the public health, transport and tourism benefits. Environmentally, encouraging cycling reduces congestion, improves air quality and reduces road wear.
The critical routes that need developing are:
- The West Wight Route (NCN 22). This is an eight-mile stretch linking Yarmouth/Freshwater (population 7,829), as well as the villages of Calbourne, Newbridge, Wellow, with Newport. This multi-use route will mostly follow the redundant railway line and make use of existing the Rights of Way network. Research estimates that more than 8,000 residents would potentially make use of this proposed trail, delivering a mid-value economic benefit of £816,000 per annum.
- Gunville Greenway (NCN 22). This route will make it easier and safer for people to cycle in and out of Newport to the west. It will provide extra travel capacity to the schools and housing in Carisbrooke and Gunville. It would also form a very important missing link to NCN 22 which at present stops in the centre of Newport. The route would therefore have an important economic and social benefit.
- Wootton to Ryde (NCN 22) – This route is intended to allow quick and easy access to the centre of Newport. The route would be based on the old Newport to Wootton railway line. A high-quality route would have an enormous impact on the traffic issues of Newport at peak times. Should the railway be extended, the rail line and cycle route should run together.
These three projects will complete the east/west NCN 22 route. On its completion it will connect all four gateways to the Island. In addition, we need to complete the Newport to East Cowes route. This runs alongside the eastern bank of the Medina estuary, linking the communities of East Cowes (population 3,956) with Newport (population 25,500). This traffic free route is partially complete but requires an additional one mile of construction. Cycle trip volumes on the equivalent Cowes to Newport route on the western side of the Medina are approximately 110,000 per year, and this new route has the potential to generate similar levels of cycle trips. It is a key part of the Medina Valley Coastal Community Plan.
As well as these routes, I believe that we should consider other investments in the cycle network too. These fall into three groups.
- First, could there be an option to run a cycle path alongside the Military Road. Such a route would be an iconic attraction for cyclists. It would get cyclists off the road and link the south of the Island (Chale and, via the Undercliff, Ventnor) with the West of the Island.
- Second, we should find funding to upgrade significantly the quality of Island bridleways, many of which are deeply rutted and unusable for cyclists. Whilst cost may prohibit the repair of all, the most important ones in terms of developing a cycling network should be prioritised.
- We need to improve the surface quality of much of the existing cycle network.
The Fixed Link
I am not spending a great deal of time on the subject of the Fixed Link, because it is currently so unlikely to happen. I need to focus on potentially achievable aims. We may well have a fixed link in 25 or 50 years’ time, but I do not believe that we will have one in the next decade. The figures do not add up. In addition, the fixed link debate is an example of exactly the type of debate we should notbe having. From the outset, the fixed link has been presented as a panacea for allthe Island’s problems, whilst those who object or question it are shouted down. In whatever we discuss on the Island, we need a constructive and civilised debate.
The fixed link is not a panacea, and those that present it as being so are misleading Islanders. It would clearly have benefits, but how many is open to discussion. It would help Islanders get quickly to the mainland. It would probably help us to access jobs, and clearly a road link would bind us into the mainland economy more closely.
However, to make a road tunnel viable, we would, by the Fixed Link group’s own estimate, need to at least double our population: that means another four towns the size of Ryde or Newport on the Island. We would lose the ferry jobs. St Mary’s Hospital would close; the only reason we have a hospital is because we are an Island. In addition, once a fixed link is built, house-building pressure on all parts of the Island, and even in the AONB, would becoming overwhelming without planning guarantees.
The fixed link under the current theoretical plans would go to a junction on the M27, currently one of the busiest sections of motorway in Britain. It will be one route, to a motorway junction, 15 miles from Southampton or Portsmouth. It will not make getting to the centre of Portsmouth or the centre of Southampton much quicker.
Local authorities on the mainland currently give no indication that they would be willing to support the project, and they will have to give up significant acres of land to do so.
Currently approx.. £115 million pounds a year is spent by Islanders and visitors getting to and from the mainland. The Fixed Link group believe that the interest payments on the approximate £3 billion needed to build a tunnel would amount to at least £90 million per year. Out of the £115 million, the Fixed Link group estimates that the Yarmouth to Lymington ferry route would remain operational, as would the Red Jet and Fast Cat passenger links. These account for a sizeable chunk of the £115 million. The Fixed Link group accept that even the current expenditure on the two most popular ferry routes: East Cowes to Southampton and Fishbourne to Portsmouth, would not be enough to pay for the interest on a tunnel. Even if it was just enough, the amounts spent would be the same as the current ferries, which means the same prices; averaging perhaps £30 to £40 one way. For how long would Islanders be happy to pay £30 to £40 for a car journey to the mainland? A bus would be much cheaper, but it would connect with a motorway junction. It could connect with Solent public transport, but this would require significant extra investment.
As there would be one primary route in and out of the Island, roads around the entrance would likely have to be widened. The costs, both financial and environmental, would be significant.
I am happy to support an independent feasibility study, but I want all the implications of the tunnel to be examined, not just the narrow economics of it otherwise, I believe, the circular campaign over the fixed link will continue ad infinitum. Therefore, as well as feasibility, there needs to be an impact study too.
I repeat, there are certainly potential benefits. Whether they outweigh the costs is another matter. If money becomes available, or the project becomes viable, then we should give it serious consideration. Until, then, I need to get on with trying to make a difference now.
The ferries were privatised badly, without any public service obligation. This was wrong. Since then, both companies have been loaded with debt, debt that passengers pay for every time we use the service. In addition, they deliver a very high profit on their turnover, three to five times greater than average. The owners of the ferry firms do exceptionally well at the expense of the Island.
I do recognise that they have tried, up to a point, to be good citizens to the Island, and they do help to drive traffic and tourism. They do also put money back into the Island – about £1 million pounds per year, although this is poor return for the Island given the size of their profits. Overall, the firms’ shareholders have been prioritised over the needs of Islanders. We are a captive market for a potential duopoly for whom there is little evidence of pro-active competitive pricing, but there is currently little interest within Government for nationalisation or further regulation.
A major investigation was launched into cross-Solent travel by a Transport Infrastructure team headed by Christopher Garnett. Probably the most important result of this was the idea of a Transport Infrastructure Board (TIB) to lead regular and meaningful dialogue with the ferry companies.
In general, there are various options for the Island's future dealings with the companies. These include a closer working relationship with Island representatives through the TIB, a public service obligation and/or greater regulation. I want to let the Board develop a relationship with the ferry companies first before we seek alternatives. I will be guided in part by their recommendations. It is, however, clear that the ferries need to more effectively demonstrate that they are on the side of Islanders.