A sustained investment programme is required to deliver the Northern Powerhouse Rail network at an estimated cost of £39 billion over the next two decades and TfN has lobbied the National Infrastructure Commission to support the concept of a Northern budget which includes a further £10 billion for smaller scale rail developments.

The scope of future Northern Powerhouse Rail services has now been defined and is centred on six hubs at Hull, Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool, Manchester and its airport. It integrates HS2 into the network with new and upgraded infrastructure.

The route map includes a new line between Liverpool and HS2 at Warrington with chords that will provide a north facing junction for access to Manchester and a south facing junction to reach Crewe and beyond. A further new alignment is proposed from Manchester via Bradford to Leeds.

In addition, existing routes will be upgraded with electrification, higher line-speed, and improved signalling headways to allow a mix of express and local services. The improvements are between Hull and Leeds via Selby, and to Doncaster, Sheffield, and Manchester via the Hope Valley Line.

At present, existing routes are two-track railways and the introduction of inter-urban express trains will mean that stopping services will be required to meet the needs of passengers making shorter distance journeys to hub stations. This will require enhanced infrastructure to allow trains to pass each other, bringing the need for new tracks, which in most cases will be within Network Rail’s curtilage given past route rationalisation at many locations.

In the immediate future a Rail Needs Assessment is to be formulated for shorter term projects that could be within current Control Period 6 funding in the period to 2024 aimed at addressing reliability and resilience issues with an immediate focus on the Manchester and Leeds hubs.

The Manchester-Castlefield Corridor is an example of the immediate investment need where expansion to a four-track railway was planned as part of the Ordsall chord development constructed in 2017 to link Victoria and Piccadilly stations. The mile-long section of line runs between Castlefield Junction and the through platforms at Piccadilly and includes Oxford Road station.

A Transport and Works Act submission was made to the Government in 2015 to provide powers for construction at a cost of up to £893 million with completion by 2020, but to date the project has not been authorised.

The view at the time was that without this enhancement no more than 12 trains per hour could run on the corridor. Despite this, the May 2018 timetable provided 15 paths per hour and the Northern franchise contract added further demand by including a new hourly Bradford to Manchester Airport service which Network Rail has declined to accommodate.

Added to that is the need to serve the Manchester Freightliner terminal at Trafford Park which operates a total of 20 arrivals and departures daily serving deep-sea ports at Felixstowe, Southampton and London Gateway.

As might be expected, operating performance is consistently poor for services that use the Castlefield Corridor and an urgent appraisal of the options is being carried out but solutions are limited if capacity investment does not take place.

The Office of Rail and Road published annual statistics for rail travel at the beginning of June which showed that Covid-19 travel restrictions in the final weeks of the financial year saw a reduction of 50 million passenger journeys which cancelled out growth earlier in the year.

Despite that, the Northern franchise which was taken over by the DfT at the beginning of March recorded a 6.6% increase in users in the year which was a better performance than any other franchise. A number of operators serving London showed a decline, the worst of which was the South Western Railway where demand fell by 5.7% in the previous 12 months before C19.

It has emerged that the 2016 Northern franchise agreement does not contain the provision of sufficient rolling stock to cater for growth at this level and the West Yorkshire Combined Authority believes that when demand returns to normal up to 56 additional vehicles will be required on the franchise. As a result of curtailed electrification projects there are no diesel-powered trains available.

Given the 2040 carbon neutral objective for railway operations, an order for further diesel units is not an option and it is only extended electrification that can resolve the shortfall. Fortunately, the foresight of Merseytravel, the transport agency of the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority responsible for the operation of Merseyrail, offers a likely solution.

A new fleet of Class 777 trains are in the course of delivery that has been built with network expansion in mind as they have dual voltage and battery capability. An option of 60 further 4-car units has been placed to supplement the 52 units for existing services.

The Merseyrail network has a number of boundary stations where it is necessary to change trains to continue a journey, such as at Ormskirk where the route from Liverpool is electrified but a 14-mile gap exists to Preston which currently requires diesel operation. Another end of the line is at Kirkby where a change is required to reach Wigan, again a 12-mile gap of non-electrified railway.

Through services can be restored to a number of these routes given the characteristics of the new rolling stock, which can release the current diesel-powered trains for use elsewhere.

The view at Ormskirk station. To reach Preston, passengers have to detrain from the Merseyrail electrified route and walk along the platform to join a connecting train.