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Stop our rail revival from hitting the buffers

Here, in a new feature analysing the stories dominating the region’s news agenda, Steven Hugill calls for clarity around train builder Hitachi’s future, cautiously welcomes Blackstone Group’s Cambois data centre plans and celebrates a Port of Blyth hat-trick.

Keep rail manufacturing on track

Theresa May’s robotic dancing. Ed Miliband’s bacon sarnie.

Boris Johnson and touch rugby. John Prescott and an egg.

The Tory ‘power stance’. Nick Clegg’s ConDem disaster.

No matter the party, no matter the politician, there are some Westminster train wrecks you just can’t forget.

Equally memorable are the litany of promises that aren’t kept, or, at most, are allowed to uncouple from parliamentary pledges and drift into the sidings.

Take Hitachi’s 750-job factory in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham.

When the train building plant opened in 2015, in the cradle of the railway no less, then Prime Minister David Cameron told guests the £82 million base would mark “the start of a great revival… in North East manufacturing”.

And, for a while, his prediction held weight.

An initial agreement to make rolling stock for East Coast and Great Western routes, under the Government’s InterCity Express Programme, was complemented by further deals to supply trains for Scottish and East Midlands lines.

But, just like he who ran when his Brexit door was kicked in, Hitachi’s fortunes have undergone a marked about turn.

Its order book is running increasingly dry, the parching caused in no small part by the Government’s decision to hold off on triggering an extension of West Coast work.

Ministers’ Great HS2 Retreat – after Hitachi had won work alongside similarly struggling operator Alstom to deliver high-speed stock – has hardly helped simplify matters either.

Westminster says conversations are continuing with all providers, including Aycliffe’s flagship Japanese tenant, and that it expects an order pipeline to “remain strong” in the years ahead.

Indeed, as North East Times Magazine went to print, talks were said to be underway with Alstom over a fresh Transport for London contract, which would stave off the immediate threat of redundancies at its Derby factory.

For the sake of Hitachi, its workers and its supply chain, those discussions must head north – and fast. Because to see a firm – whose lines connect to the very tracks that catalysed global train travel – hit the buffers less than ten years after its grand arrival, would be an incredible and appalling waste.

Hitachi’s factory, right from its opening day, has been a popular backdrop for political visits, a 101 location for communications teams seeking pleasing press shots of elected members looking at empty train shells in hard hats and highvisibility jackets.

However, if urgent action isn’t forthcoming, they may well be poring over an altogether different industrial carcass.

New colour for Cambois

Even on the dullest of days, when clouds darken angrily or a stubborn mist rolls in, you do well to miss the vivid blues, pinks, reds, oranges and greens spattered across the home fronts of Cambois’ Unity Terrace.

Yet even they’ve felt shrouded following the collapse of Britishvolt’s 3000-job vehicle battery factory plans, on nearby ex-Blyth power station land, and Recharge Industries’ subsequent failed follow-up bid.

The mournful veil, though, may about to be lifted, with Blackstone Group pressing ahead with a deal to turn the idle 235-acre site into a £10 billion data centre.

According to parties close to the agreement, the hub has potential to “kickstart an entire tech industry cluster”.

We have, of course, been here before. Britishvolt’s demise and Recharge’s retreat provided a reminder, if needed, that no project is ever confirmed until doors are officially opened. Blackstone, though, offers the best hope yet.

Britishvolt sought to take on the big boys while barely in short trousers, with no customers and no ready product.

Blackstone, however, does. Hailing itself as the “world’s largest alternative asset manager”, it has data centre subsidiary QTS, which comes complete with sites across the US and Netherlands.

And at Cambois, it would have a site that has long been championed for its air, road, rail and sea access, ready-made power supply and willing local workforce.

What we need now is for its plan to plug into that landscape, and create longterm economic success.

Because after two high-profile failures, we can’t afford to see its colours run too.

Hat-trick of successes

Remaining on the South Northumberland coast and congratulations to Port of Blyth, which has chalked up a record financial performance for a third consecutive year.

Group turnover grew to £31.5 million, with operating profit and pre-tax profit rising to £3.9 million and £3.6 million, respectively.

The successes were driven by clean energy sector work, with the base supporting the delivery of two of the world’s largest offshore wind farms.

It also oversaw its biggest oil and gas decommissioning project, with thousands of tonnes of rig parts broken up.

North East Times Magazine visited the port at the beginning of the year, bracing a none too shy January wind during a river trip, to see its progress first-hand.

Busy units mirrored an equally vibrant waterway, with the metallic skeleton of the new Energy Central Learning Hub – which will train tomorrow’s workers from a riverside spot on the port’s estate – matched by JDR Cables’ soonto- open subsea powerline factory on Northumberland Energy Park.

It all made for an extremely impressive sight, and one that served to highlight again our region’s place at the forefront of the green industrial revolution.

May 9, 2024

  • Ideas & Observations

Created by Steven Hugill