ALAN CASTLE: Will it really make a difference?

CALL me an old cynic if you like, but I just couldn’t get worked up over headlines late last week about the A1.

As you well know, this newspaper, as well as many interested groups, the MP, councils and this column have been campaigning for decades for the road between Morpeth and Alnwick and Alnwick to Berwick to be made dual carriageway.

At last, we have secured assurances that the route – according to Transport Minister Norman Baker – is one of strategic national importance.

His stance effectively reverses more than a decade of denial by the past government, who downgraded the road to a lesser status and by default killed any chance of it being dualled.

So why does this not excite me? Simple, really. There’s still no money to do the job in hand. It will likely take a trip, cap in hand, to Brussels to persuade the EU to treat the A1 as a trans-national highway and therefore open up European funding streams.

I’m sure, however, that all of those paying massive sums into the Treasury via taxation on fuel and the sheer cost of keeping a vehicle on the road will want to see the Government give something back to this region.

Let’s face facts. The A1 is still the only main road on the east coast. Yet ours is the only section between the south coast and north of Aberdeen that is not dual carriageway.

We are told this week that by the year 2025, traffic in this country is likely to increase by 30 per cent of what it is now.

Can you imagine travelling between Alnwick and Berwick 14 years from now with the road in its present state with a third more tractors, caravans and large lorries trundling north and south?

Perhaps it is worth taking a moment to put the state of the A1 into global perspective.

A colleague who recently visited North Africa happened to drive along Tunisia’s main coastal road, which connects to Libya in the east and Algeria in the west.

It too is called the A1.

What differentiates it from its Northumbrian namesake, however, is that it is entirely dualled and remarkably pothole-free.

Perhaps a fact-finding delegation should be sent out to see just how they managed to do it on a fraction of the gigantic tax-bloated budget our government has to play with.

Roadworks in and around Alnwick continue to cause a major headache for drivers of all sorts, especially with the introduction of traffic lights at the Oaks roundabout on South Road earlier this week.

One disgruntled motorist I was talking to said traffic was backed up for quarter of a mile on Tuesday, a result of the combination of diversions on the A1 sliproad and this latest inconvenience.

It took him half an hour to get from Alnmouth Road to the town centre as vehicles were subjected to a three-way system of traffic control.

He’s local and his journey was essential, but for the large numbers of tourists pouring into Alnwick with the onset of the school holidays, I can imagine many wondering why they were bothering.

It’s a fact that roadworks are a necessary evil – we only have to consider the former argument for dualling the A1 – but there must be a better way to do this.

The whole of north Northumberland relies heavily on the visitor economy and car travel is the key, given the relatively poor public transport alternative.

Perhaps one solution – with my green hat on – is to create a park and ride system using the vacant garage site on South Road. Direct incoming visitor traffic there and have a regular shuttle service covering all parts of the town. It can’t be that hard to do.

In fact, looking to the future, why not consider this option as a solution to the ongoing saga of the town centre bus station?

Instead of coaches coming into town, shift the station in its entirity to South Road and free up the town centre space at Lagny Street and Clayport for quality commercial development.

The town could then be served by a fleet of electric shuttle buses.