The Integrated Rail Plan: A Considered View
A perspective from the Rail Reform Group
The background to the Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) is that the country is still going through a pandemic that has ravaged its finances, and changed the market for travel to the extent that rail has lost as much as 50% of its commuting business. Despite this, the Government is still prepared to invest £96bn in rail infrastructure for the North and Midlands. This is a massive vote of confidence in both rail and the economies of the North and Midlands. That should be a cause for celebration, not cries of betrayal, which for the most part seem to be politically motivated.
The IRP was intended to identify how HS2, Northern Powerhouse Rail and Midlands Rail Hub would dovetail together for a network of high speed routes, exploring the scope for shared use of new infrastructure and setting out an overarching delivery schedule in order to deliver maximum benefits quicker and to provide a realistic workbank for the supply industry. It was not meant to be a total blueprint for the Midlands and North. This means that proposals such as the Leamside Line are considered to be City Region schemes with alternative funding streams. This may be why no mention was made of Manchester’s Castlefield Corridor, for which there are ongoing workstreams. Incidentally, it does appear that IRP would take two paths off this corridor in each direction; a Liverpool-Manchester Airport semi-fast and a Redcar-Manchester Airport based on the current timetable.
Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR)
A lot of the criticism is that ‘only’ upgraded lines and not new build is to be provided. Do passengers really care whether the line is new or upgraded if the trains are fast, frequent, comfortable and, of course, on time? An electrified, resignalled and improved Transpennine and Midland Main Lines (MML) is precisely the investment that has been called for over many years. Whilst ‘upgrading’ implies disruption to services on the existing lines, the industry has improved its management of the required blockades. New Build implies less disruption to existing services, but there will be wider community impacts. If one regards Ditton Junction to Marsden as a new railway, this would then be a similar mileage to the proposed Manchester – Leeds via Bradford route.
Until IRP there were two schemes; the Transpennine Rail Upgrade (TRU), which seemed something of a patchwork of smaller schemes, but are at least already in delivery or under development. This included Manchester-Victoria-Stalybridge electrification, Huddersfield-Ravensthorpe quadrupling and electrification and Colton Junction – Church Fenton electrification. Then there was the showcase new build NPR line linking Manchester to Leeds via Bradford. Both these projects seemed to involve a degree of duplication, that would inevitably push NPR into the distant future while short and medium terms investment focussed on a series of TRU schemes. What we get now is a combination of the two, with the intention of more benefits being delivered sooner.
Commentators refer to a Warrington to Marsden new high-speed line but have missed the point that what is being delivered is a new fast electrified main line between Liverpool and Manchester. The IRP should have majored on this. The Ditton Junction – Warrington Bank Quay Low Level line, now virtually disused since Fiddlers Ferry power station closed, will be rebuilt as a high-speed electrified line that reaches to within ten miles of Liverpool. That remaining ten miles is a four-track railway with spare capacity, except for a short section at Wavertree Junction, and all of this will doubtless be modernised to fulfil its new NPR role. This new main line from Liverpool and Warrington will be linked by new build to HS2 thus giving them direct HS2 services to Birmingham and London as well as NPR services to Manchester and Leeds. Provision for the new junction from HS2 to the Liverpool direction is already in development under HS2 phase 2b and the route into Manchester (mostly tunnel from the Airport) is already specified. This is precisely the synergy that IRP was intended to deliver.
There remains the question as to whether Liverpool Lime Street can accommodate both 200m long HS2 trains and an increased NPR service, or whether a new station, probably underground, in central Liverpool is required as mooted by Liverpool City Region. If so, the pragmatism that sees Ditton Junction to Warrington converted to a new main line could be further employed by using either the Wapping or Waterloo / Victoria tunnels that extend west from Edge Hill, and whose future use for transport has been safeguarded by Merseytravel.
Just as the new Liverpool – Manchester main line is necessitated by the intensity of local services on the two existing routes, so new build from Piccadilly eastwards recognises that the level of local services on routes east of Piccadilly requires new build for NPR. Speculation that this will be built on ‘stilts’ rather than in tunnel is premature as development work, tasked to HS2, will be in its infancy if it has even started. Whilst one can understand the residents of Buckinghamshire objecting to an HS2 that they will not benefit from, it seems perverse indeed to try and generate opposition to NPR in a city that will be one of the prime beneficiaries of it.
If the Manchester HS2/NPR station has to be a dead-end surface station to avoid the billions of pounds in tunnelling costs, then the track layout in the limited space between that station and the tunnel mouth near Longsight will need to be carefully designed to minimise conflicting movements and prevent station capacity being constrained. This implies a flying or burrowing junction between the Leeds and Crewe routes.
Further east, IRP implies the construction of a new Standedge tunnel, or the refurbishment of the existing disused bores. That should minimise disruption to services on this key section of route. There is clearly scope for three or four-tracking on the existing formation between Marsden and Huddersfield, but there is an unanswered question as to what will be done between Ravensthorpe and Leeds. Morley Tunnel is an obvious bottleneck, and with West Yorkshire planning a new station to serve the White Rose Shopping Centre, it is hard to see how new infrastructure provision can be avoided if local services are to be protected, if not enhanced. This should be spelled out.
The Eastern leg was always a less satisfactory plan than the Western. Toton Interchange was a political compromise that didn’t really satisfy anyone travelling to or from the centres of Derby or Nottingham. Chesterfield and Sheffield were going to be served by a spur from HS2 onto the MML as there was no clear consensus on the location of a station to serve South Yorkshire on a direct HS2 route. Full electrification of MML means that Derby and Nottingham will now get HS2 services to their city centre stations which will better attract inbound traffic than a parkway station such as Toton. Chesterfield and Sheffield will likewise continue to be served via the MML. The diversion of the Eastern leg to East Midlands Parkway was heralded by the National Infrastructure Commission’s report which saw this providing better east-west regional connectivity. It is not a surprise.
IRP points out the considerable investment already planned on the East Coast Main Line (ECML) with a promise of more to come. This points to a Government attitude that with this much investment in ECML it should continue to be the primary route between London, Yorkshire, the North East and Edinburgh, and hints at 140 mph operation on certain stretches. Time for another look at Welwyn Tunnels and Viaduct? More clarity on this, and what is to be done east of Leeds to York and Hull for NPR will be needed to assuage the anger felt in Yorkshire.
Bradford clearly loses out. Electrification from Leeds to Bradford is intended to be a consolation prize but more should be done if stakeholders and the public are to be won over. Firstly, a regular service from Kings Cross to Bradford via Leeds and New Pudsey would be a boost. This electrification should be a first phase of Calder Valley electrification, long considered to be a high priority in the North. A second phase could take the wires to Halifax and Huddersfield via Brighouse. This would give the potential for a modern electric service linking four of West Yorkshire’s boroughs. However, phasing would be crucial. The Calder Valley could not be electrified when it needs to be a diversionary route during modernisation of the Standedge route. Finally, Bradford – Manchester services via Leeds, or, in due course via Halifax and Brighouse and the NPR would provide attractive journey times compared to the Calder Valley today.
The Government has made electrification a firm policy commitment in its Decarbonisation Strategy. The benefits of reduced operating costs, decarbonisation, faster journey times and ‘sparks effect’ increases in ridership are well understood. The supply industry has done much work recently to improve designs, reduce costs and tackle issues such reducing clearances needed under structures such as bridges.
IPR gives a good start, with two main line schemes, but more needs to be done if zero carbon by 2040 is to be achieved. It hints at electrification from Sheffield to Manchester via the Hope Valley, which would then start to see a rolling programme for the north. An essential addition, about which IRP says little, is from Leeds and Doncaster to Sheffield. This would enable fast regional services from York and points north through Sheffield to Manchester and on to Birmingham via HS2 West. Hull to Leeds and Sheffield should also be listed.
A high-level document such as IRP naturally generates more questions than it answers, some of which this paper has already posed.
Timescales are still excessively long. Can we not deliver infrastructure in this country any quicker? NPR from Liverpool to Manchester is to be delivered by 2042 coinciding with HS2 phase 2b, but Manchester – Leeds has to wait until 2045. This is supposed to be quicker than the original Manchester-Bradford-Leeds NPR! This is where the focus of Northern politicians’ campaigning should be.
Electrification from Manchester to Stalybridge is planned to complete in 2027. How can around seven miles of work, for which bridges have already raised, take 6 years to complete? Huddersfield to Leeds is shown for 2030. West Coast Main Line electrification from Euston to Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester was delivered in less time. Ominously, no timescales are shown for electrification from Stalybridge to Huddersfield to complete the Manchester-Leeds route. Does this have to wait for the new route to be completed in 24 years time?
The Government has rightly demanded that the rail industry and its suppliers improve their delivery processes as part of Project Speed. It needs to sharpen its own processes too. The East -West Rail Transport & Works Order took 18 months to sign off. The DCO to enable provision of three miles of new railway to link Portishead to the national rail network has been with the DfT for two years and at the time of COP26 it was announced that a further six months was required to give further consideration to environmental issues! The paperwork already amounts to 27,000 sheets, which if laid end to end would reach longer than the line they seek to restore. This strongly suggests that there is no sense of urgency in delivering schemes that benefit local economies and the environment in the drive to net zero.
Will organisational change with the establishment of Great British Railways further delay this process?
The announcement of the Integrated Rail Plan is a bold step that is to be welcomed given the difficult circumstances in which it has been launched. There is a clear commitment to improved regional and inter-city rail links for economic and environmental benefits. This is a framework and the devil is as always in the detail. It is to be hoped that regional stakeholders and Government will work together to make this happen recognising both financial constraints post pandemic and regional aspirations. It is to be hoped that concerted efforts will be made to streamline the approvals process so that the long timescales indicated can be improved on.
November 30th 2021