The Rail Needs of the North and the Midlands

20 May, 2020

Government’s intention to develop an integrated rail plan for the North and Midlands is welcome.

This requires strategic planning, not just prioritising projects. The outcome should be a programme of rail network development designed to meet Government objectives. Today, these centre on national economy recovery and decarbonising the transport sector – both must be regarded as urgent.

Planning efforts to date, seeking to tie together HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail have been mis-guided. Creating a £80bn mega-project doesn’t address the problems on today’s network and will take at least 20 years to deliver. The Midlands and the North can’t wait that long. And it risks creating an investment gap. In our new report: Meeting Rail Needs in High Speed North we set out how this can be filled by a short and medium term programme of incremental improvements.

Projects developed pre-Covid centre on better connections between cities. Given that the railway is a network with hubs in city centres, that remains valid but it’s only part of what’s needed. There is also a Government aim to level up the economy and that means addressing places left behind – the smaller towns and cities of the North and Midlands – and not just the big cities.

With some adaptations to the longer term high-speed rail plans (including leaving some bits out), and with some fresh thinking, known problems and opportunities can be addressed much earlier than 2040 – and help pave the way for a full realisation of the additional benefits of HS2 Phase 2b and NPR in due course.

The reduction of carbon on a trajectory to the Government’s committed date of 2050 for net zero will necessarily dominate the way transport investment is shaped. An expansion of the capability of the electrified national rail network will be crucial.

Attention must be switched away from the (already very largely electrified) rail network of the South East and its two new inter-connecting rail lines across London (Thameslink and Crossrail). Much greater value in carbon reduction terms will come from addressing rail network short-comings in the Midlands and North (and across the border to Scotland) where rail market shares are low, but where there is massive potential to reduce the need for both short haul flights and longer distance car and HGV journeys.

A new entity – High Speed North – is charged with creating the integrated plan. It is seeking ways to reduce capital costs and increase project benefits. In our new report we have suggested a prioritised programme consisting of:

  1. A major electrification programme In England, the obvious starting points being completion of a 100% electrified trans-Pennine route (via Huddersfield); and the completion of the Midland Main Line electrification
  2. ‘Burning platform’ investments to redress current severe operating constraints. A prime example is creating a ‘superhub’ at Manchester Piccadilly with underground platforms connected to the west by tunnel to handle all of Manchester’s inter-regional services. This can be progressed now, well ahead of HS2 and NPR – and superhubs are also needed for Leeds and for Birmingham where the Midlands Rail Hub (Moor Street) can transform HS2 into an X-shaped network. Better to build these improvements, which carefully staged implementation programmes, now rather than wait to be swamped by added demand form HS2 and NPR later
  3. Two priority intercity connectivity upgrades. Early delivery of two parts of HS2’s ‘eastern limb’ between Sheffield and Leeds and between Birmingham and Nottingham (with a connection to Toton and Mansfield). This addresses the busiest city commuter connection in the North and the key east-west connection in the Midlands
  4. Deliver a 3h10 rail journey time for London-Glasgow/Edinburgh. This requires a line-of-route coordinated investment programme north and south of the Scottish border, benefiting Lancashire, Cumbria, and the Scottish Borders. The main aim is to drive modal switch and make a dramatic impact on carbon reduction. Preston, Carlisle and Glasgow Central stations will each need investment and some new higher-speed cut-offs will be needed
  5. International connectivity. Three schemes:
    (i) The planned western connection into Heathrow airport, with new direct rail connections to the airport from the Midlands (as well as the South West and South Wales)
    (ii) An equivalent arrangement for Manchester where (as it happens) there is also a western airport access scheme. (This is also a ‘burning platform’ issue to tackle rail network congestion in central Manchester – the current Airport railway station is a bottleneck). It will transform access to the airport from Chester and Wales
    (iii) A strategic freight route for a much-expanded railfreight operation through the channel tunnel. This requires a new lower Thames rail tunnel (which can also be used for Essex-Kent passenger rail services) so that railfreight using the channel tunnel can operate directly to/from the Midlands and North avoiding London.
  6. Modal Integration. This is especially important for ‘left behind’ places, has low capital cost implications and can be implemented speedily. It entails creating rail <-> express interurban bus hubs and needs a simple policy shift to permit single fares systems to operate across bus and rail in the way it does today across London.