Urgent rail investment decisions for the North face new UK Government

Barring something extraordinary happening, the election looks to be a one horse race and Labour will form the next government.  It’s clear that the party’s approach has been to avoid any hostages to fortune, so the Labour manifesto has no specific commitments on investment in rail infrastructure. 

The main thrust is to repeat the commitments made in “Labour’s Plan to Fix Britain’s Railways”, their April policy document, including commitments to set up Great British Railways as soon as possible and take passenger operations back into the public sector.  While there is to be a national ten-year infrastructure strategy, the manifesto makes no commitment to an electrification programme and has no recognition of the potential contribution modal shift to rail could make to net zero.  There is also no mention of HS2 and no clear commitment to Northern Powerhouse Rail beyond “improving rail connectivity across the North of England”.

In contrast, the Conservatives have reiterated the half-baked list of schemes they produced last October when the Prime Minister announced the cancellation of HS2 north of Birmingham and commits to, for example, electrification of the North Wales Coast Line – an expensive scheme on which little or no serious development work has been carried out as yet.  

There are other strange promises; the Newark to Nottingham route is to be upgraded to “halve journey times between Nottingham and Leeds”, implying a new connection with the East Coast Main Line and extra services on a route which cannot accommodate existing contractual commitments.  But it’s not worth spending too much time on the Conservative manifesto – it’s unkind to intrude on private grief.

The Liberal Democrats are perhaps most bullish about rail.  They don’t propose taking passenger services back into public ownership but promise a freeze on fares, the possible introduction of an annual pass and a ten-year plan for rail electrification.  There would be a new Railway Agency which would “hold train companies to account, and bring in wholesale reform of the broken fare system”. 

In addition, short domestic flights would be banned where a direct rail option takes less that 2.5 hours.  This would in reality only apply to London–Manchester, essentially now a feeder route for Heathrow transit passengers but it sounds good.  It’s easier for a third party to make exciting promises, as in their hearts they know they are unlikely to be held to account; even if there is a hung parliament, the party is most unlikely to join a formal coalition as it is still scarred by the backlash it suffered in the 2015 election. 

Reform UK promise all things to all men – tax cuts, increased defence spending, a perfect National Health Service.  Altogether, a programme of populist, Peronist characteristics – if they were ever elected, it would by comparison make Liz Truss’s disastrous premiership look a model of financial rectitude.  Their only clear policy in relation to rail is to cancel HS2:“Save £25 billion by scrapping the rest of this bloated vanity project”.  With hindsight, cancellation would have been appropriate ten years ago – but that horse has now bolted.

Back in the real world, it appears we will have a new government that will have made few incautious promises and will take a pragmatic approach to the rail industry – probably not a bad thing on the whole.  But there will inevitably be difficult issues to resolve, not least the long running dispute with ASLEF.

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Delivery of the full Northern Powerhouse Rail project will certainly be challenging in the short term, given the parlous state of the public finances and the lead time for planning and achieving consent for major new infrastructure projects.  The immediate focus should perhaps be on delivering significant benefits sooner, building on current projects.  For example, the existing TransPennine route between Manchester and Leeds is already being upgraded at significant cost. 

Major, targeted investment in the rail network in the north of England is vital to support the region’s economic performance and to deliver agglomeration benefits and the current North TransPennine route upgrade is a key part of this.  Better use can also be made of projects that have already been delivered; while Liverpool–Manchester Victoria was electrified in 2015, there is only one “fast” train an hour on the route, taking 36 minutes for the 32 mile journey with two stops, at Lea Green and Newton-le Willows.  With some capital expenditure – for example on four tracking a section of the route – it should be possible to operate half-hourly non-stop trains with a journey time of less than 30 minutes. 

Beyond that, holistic, well thought-out investment in the rail network across the region would deliver wider benefits sooner.  This could include electrification of key routes such as Manchester–Warrington–Liverpool, Manchester–Bradford–Leeds, Manchester–Sheffield, and Leeds–Barnsley–Sheffield–Nottingham, together with projects to unblock key capacity constraints such as the corridor through Manchester Oxford Road.  This programme would deliver modal shift and elements of it could be started quickly, consistent with Labour’s priority to drive economic growth. 

In the longer term, there may well be a vital need for more capacity and the new infrastructure should certainly be built to minimise journey times – although almost no journeys on the Manchester–Liverpool axis originate at Lime Steet and finish at Manchester Victoria as passengers are travelling from somewhere in Merseyside to somewhere in Greater Manchester.  Their overall journey time includes the time taken to travel to and from the stations at each end – this is not Beijing to Shanghai!  And it’s important that the long term goal of a regional high speed route is not allowed to squeeze out earlier worthwhile schemes.

chrisjstokes@btopenworld.com

Photo credit: Paul Bigland.

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