UK’s government has re-assessed plans to enhance rail services in Northern England and the Midlands considering the Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on its finances. A forecast investment of £185 billion over 30 years has been reduced to £96 billion.

The reduced expenditure means that:

  • The Eastern Leg of the high-speed HS2 line will not be built to reach Leeds, although the Western Leg from Crewe to Manchester will go ahead
  • The Northern Powerhouse Rail high-speed route linking Manchester and Leeds will be reduced in scope, leaving Bradford without high-speed connections
  • The core Trans Pennine route between Liverpool and Hull will not be electrified in full

The purpose of the plan is to co-ordinate new infrastructure proposals with the aim of improving connectivity between several large population centres. The high-speed lines also provide access to the existing network, reducing journey times over a wide geographic reach.

Northern Powerhouse Rail, an organisation established by Transport for the North that represents elected mayors and local government organisations, has developed proposals to build new lines and upgrade existing routes to bring more competitive journey times between the larger conurbations in northern England and encourage economic agglomeration effects between them. This is one of the government’s objectives to improve UK’s economic performance footprint.

Proposed HS2 cutback will result in trains making greater use of an upgraded national network

The eastern leg of HS2 that was intended to reach Leeds will not be built. Instead, it will be reduced to a length of high-speed line between the Birmingham Interchange and the existing East Midlands Parkway station located on the Midland Main Line.

To justify their decision, they say that the time for passengers to travel to Nottingham and Derby will not be reduced, as it will no longer be necessary to transfer to alternative services at a proposed parkway station to be built at Toton. The Sheffield journey is also not greatly impaired as the original proposal was to build a spur from HS2 with relatively low running speed.

The most affected city is Leeds, where the fastest option for travel from London will be to use the East Coast Main Line. The intention is to improve journey times by switching to fully digitalised signalling with in-cab movement authority, rather than relying on physical signals with an upgrade of the existing 125 mph line-speed to 140 mph.

The Phase 1 section of the route between London Euston and Birmingham Curzon Street is currently under construction, with parliamentary approval granted for Phase 2a between Birmingham Interchange and Crewe. The Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) confirmed that the western leg of Phase 2b serving Manchester, including an airport station, will be built.

Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) investment reduced

A much-reduced NPR project is to be implemented for new and upgraded routes. The original objective was to transform travel times between Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield and Hull. The headline part of the plan was to provide a new high-speed route between Manchester and Leeds via Bradford, described as HS3.

In addition to slow existing journeys, there is an acute capacity problem in Manchester. There was very heavy rail rationalisation in the City due to past policies to remove duplicate routes, which involved the closure of large terminal stations at Manchester Central and Exchange.

As a result, the routes that trains must take have no capacity to absorb growth and this is acknowledged in a commitment to provide a new high-speed line between Warrington and Marsden on the Diggle route, to alleviate the worst of the congestion. “From somewhere to nowhere” might be a sobriquet for this decision, but it’s determined by the railway geography that exists.

Locations that miss out are Bradford, where it’s concluded that an HS2 station was incompatible with the existing surface transport plan, and Hull, where low economic output is not deemed sufficient to justify electrification and will instead be confined to the core route between Liverpool and York.

A further decision, contrary to the previous belief that transport decision-making should be devolved to elected City Region Mayors and their agencies, is that responsibility for the NPR business case will be taken over by the Department for Transport in London.

In response, Transport for the North board meeting held on 24 November expressed disappointment with the published IPR and believed other sources of funding could be used to implement the original plan, in particular taxes that reflected increased land values.

The UK economy has seen a greater reliance on imported goods and as a result, more imports require transit to inland distribution terminals. Several new facilities funded by the private sector have been opened in recent years, a trend that was anticipated by Network Rail with the development of a Strategic Freight Network (SFN).

The designated routes have required gauge clearance works to convey “9 ft 6 in, high-cube” containers and improved track layouts to permit the operation of trains conveying up to 120 TEU (twenty-foot equivalent unit container) that are 775 metres.

The IRP makes provision for freight capacity, which has the effect of adding the main Trans Pennine route via Diggle to the SFN to allow intermodal trains carrying high-cube containers to run from ports to a range of terminals. The selection of the route follows previous analysis by the Rail Freight Group, an organisation that represents freight operating companies, terminal operators and rail freight industry supply chain.

The lower Government funding reflected in the IRP demonstrates the opportunity for market-led private investment. FCP has previously reviewed the potential for this approach with Government agencies but as yet the concept has not been adopted.