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£87bn of rail plans axed as plans scaled back

18 Nov 21 The government has redrawn its plans for rail network improvements across the north of England to save £87bn of public money.

Leeds' HS2 station? Not happening
Leeds' HS2 station? Not happening

The new plans, costed at £98bn over the next 20 years or so, are a mixture of new-build high-speed line and upgraded existing lines.

The most prominent casualty is Phase 2b eastern leg of the HS2 high speed line between Birmingham and Leeds.

A scaled-back version of the Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) plan is going ahead under the new Integrated Rail Plan for the North and Midlands, published today.

“The new plans, using a mixture of new-build high-speed line and upgraded conventional lines, were drawn up after it became clear that the full HS2 and NPR schemes as originally proposed would have cost up to £185bn and not entered service until the early to mid-2040s,” the government statement said.

The £98bn allocated for the plan comprises £54bn of spending on rail and local transport in the midlands and the north plus the £42bn already committed to HS2 Phases 1 and 2a between London, the West Midlands and Crewe.

That £54bn package includes three new lines, covering 110 miles:

  • HS2 Phase 2a (Crewe- Manchester)
  • a new line between Birmingham and East Midlands Parkway
  • a new line connecting Warrington, Manchester and Marsden in Yorkshire.

It also includes the upgrading or electrification of 180 miles of track on route three existing lines:

  • the electrification of the Midland Main Line from London to Nottingham, Derby and Sheffield
  • a programme of upgrades to the East Coast Main Line to the East Midlands, Yorkshire and the northeast.
  • electrification and upgrade of the Transpennine Main Line between Manchester, Leeds and York.
  • There is also £200m earmarked to get the planned £4.2bn West Yorkshire mass transit system started.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps described the new integrated rail plan (IRP) as “ambitious, deliverable and backed by the largest single government investment ever made in our rail network”. He said they went “above and beyond the initial ambitions of HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail”.

It is unclear how a new line between Warrington and Marsden, seven miles west of Huddersfield, "goes beyond" NPR's proposed coast-to-coast line connecting Liverpool and Hull, including a new Manchester-Leeds line. (See plan below.)

The original Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) plan – click on image to enlarge
The original Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) plan – click on image to enlarge

CBI chief policy director Matthew Fell said: “The Integrated Rail Plan is a significant investment that will go some way towards modernising our ageing rail networks and can be delivered at pace. But businesses across the midlands and northern England will be justifiably disappointed to see the goalposts have moved at the eleventh hour, and concerned that some of the areas most sorely in need of development will lose out as a result of the scaled back plans.”

David Whysall, managing director for UK infrastructure at construction consultant Turner & Townsend, said: “This is not the plan that some expected or hoped for and there will be justified disappointment, particularly in terms of much needed east to west connectivity in the north, with longstanding and high-profile projects being pushed aside.”

“However, there are silver linings too.  This is a £96bn plan for rail which in following advice from the National Infrastructure Commission moves away from the piecemeal planning of the past. For the first time we have a coordinated approach to investment, that follows the announcement earlier this year on the formation of Great British Rail.

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“The plan needs supporting with a governance model that allows projects to be formed and delivered without the political interference that too often delays investment and impacts getting projects set up for success. Benefits need to be delivered quickly if the plan is to realign and transition the UK to a low carbon economy.” 

Andy Bell, director of consulting engineer Ramboll, said: “Just 18 months ago the prime minister told Parliament in a statement following the Oakervee review, that it ‘does not make any sense’ to build Northern Powerhouse Rail without HS2 and the government’s strategy was to do both ‘simultaneously’. Clearly the pandemic has strained public finances since then, but another change of approach does not help an engineering sector scaling up skills and resources – at a time of global demand for rail expertise – around what appeared to be clear commitments and pledges. 

“The priority now must be to make the new approach deliver for both society and the net zero economy we must build. This means ensuring that the schemes that do go ahead increase rail freight capacity and encourage people out of cars, while also ensuring that they are designed as part of broader place-based regeneration strategies. With the change from Network Rail to GB Rail another potential complicating factor, ensuring a coherent and dependable pipeline of work for efficient rail investment needs to be a priority for the Department for Transport. Only then will rail be able to effectively contribute to improving the lives of people in communities across the UK.”

Mick Whelan, general secretary of ASLEF, the train drivers’ union, said: “HS2 was meant to be a world-beater, and put Britain, the country which gave the railway to the world, back on the industrial and economic map. Instead, the Tories are letting us down. Not levelling up, but punching down on the north.

“This government is a government of broken promises. It has announced Northern Powerhouse Rail an incredible 60 times – and I know because we’ve counted – and now it puts the project in the bin.

“They have tried today to claim their new plans will deliver comparable benefits more quickly and cheaply. But that’s not true. It’s smoke and mirrors from a government which won’t, we now see, deliver for people in the north.”

HS2 Phase 2b would have cut the time of a rail journey from Leeds to London Leeds to just 81 minutes, from its current time of 133 minutes. Leeds to Birmingham would have been reduced to just 49 minutes instead of currently 113 minutes (at best). But Mick Whelan said that it was always about more than quicker journeys.“HS2 was never only a high speed rail link," he said. "Detractors like to say it only shaves a few minutes off the time between Birmingham and London. But HS2 was meant to make it quicker and easier to travel the length and the breadth of our country and to free up pathways on the East and West Coast main lines for more passenger services and for more freight trains. This decision means that lots of people will not enjoy the benefits of HS2 and the project will no longer free up routes for other services.”

Paul Robinson, UK rail lead at cost cnsultant Gleeds, said: “While we welcome the long-awaited publication of the integrated rail plan, the continued delays have done nothing but create uncertainty, leading to widespread and damaging speculation about the fate of schemes like HS2, Northern Powerhouse Rail and the Midlands Rail Hub. This has only been exacerbated by the lack of clarity around the future of individual projects of late. Take HS2, for example. If the scope had been delivered in full, this would have benefited the entire country but with the eastern leg removed the areas that needed it the most are being cut out. The continuous adjustments to funding, priorities, and overarching policy in preceding years have created inefficiencies and cost the tax-payer millions while delivering very little, so we have all been waiting for a brave, integrated and above all consistent rail plan to shape the next decade and beyond. While the IRP does at least provide some direction, it is not the ‘infrastructure revolution for this country’ that Boris Johnson claimed would be coming.

"He himself said that now was the time to invest in Northern Powerhouse Rail so I am disappointed, although not entirely surprised, to see that the scheme has been drastically watered down. We fully support the notion of devolved investment but it’s important that words translate into action. The NPR represented a real opportunity to support the delivery of the levelling-up agenda by connecting the major economic centres of the North. It promised to reinvigorate under-served communities, generating opportunity, attracting investment, creating jobs and ultimately, allowing this part of the country to realise its vast potential – if done right. Ultimately, having at last set out its objectives, such as they are, I hope that those charged with bringing them to fruition will strive to put passengers first, focusing on and rewarding outcomes instead of simply encouraging a race to the bottom on price which benefits no one.”

Leeds City Council chief executive Tom Riordan said: “This is a big disappointment given the resources, work and energy that the city has given to the nationally-conceived project over the last decade. Leeds got behind it, planned our city to accommodate it and communities have been disrupted by it. The Integrated Rail Plan downgraded the east-west Northern Powerhouse Rail plans with a mixture of upgrades and new track and, crucially for our friends in Bradford, did not support a new station there. I cannot hide my deep frustration at this position.”

His council leader, Cllr James Lewis, said: “After more than 10 years of effort, investment and planning based on the government’s clear proposal to bring HS2 to Leeds, we have been left extremely disappointed and frustrated by today’s announcement which only offers more studies, reviews and uncertainty for high-speed connections to our city - but, sadly, we are not surprised.

“This is not the first time our city has been promised major infrastructure investment, only for it to be curtailed or cancelled. It is 10 years this month since the Transpennine Route upgrade was announced, yet we are still waiting for the fully-defined scheme, and it is 30 years since the idea of a ‘supertram’ was first mentioned.

“So we will reserve judgement on delivery until we see spades in the ground. The Leeds-Sheffield connection is the most advanced and shovel-ready section of HS2 and NPR, and will bring immediate benefits between two core cities along with benefiting many communities in between by freeing up capacity on local routes. We already know there is no capacity to bring more trains into Leeds from the West and no more land available either. We are calling for the Leeds to Sheffield work to be fast-tracked and delivered without delay whilst the government carries out yet more studies or reviews.

“Despite these setbacks, we will continue to deliver for the people and businesses of Leeds. As a city we continue to grow and consistently punch above our weight. We remain one of only two core cities outside of London that are net contributors to the Treasury, and there is a real confidence in our city, welcoming a wealth of major businesses and institutions in recent years. We will use these new opportunities to continue our economic growth and recovery, and work with any businesses affected by this uncertainty to stay and grow in the city.”

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