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A leap in the dark

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A key part of the HS2 Project runs from near Lichfield in the Midlands to Crewe in the North.

Previously known as Phase 2a, we should re-name this project for what it is, the North-Midlands Link. It allows the nation to derive good value from its investment in the much longer section of HS2 that runs from the Midlands to London. The North-Midlands Link does what it says: it provides the onward link from the North to the Midlands.

It is a crucial section of new line because it allows longer-distance trains to bypass a 2-track bottleneck on the country’s busiest railway, the West Coast Main Line (WCML). The rest of this line, from Crewe to London, is essentially 4-track, which allows faster trains to sail past slower ones.

Without Phase 2a, northbound 3 tracks (2 WMCL + 1 HS2) reduce to 1 track at Colwich Junction. It’s like permanent lane closures on both carriageways. When lanes are closed on motorways, everything backs up for miles. On the railways, you’ve got to cut the timetable, reducing services to the capacity of the bottleneck.

Colwich Junction where West Coast Main Line slows down & goes from 4 tracks to 2

Photo: Greengauge 21

The Government’s latest updated cost estimate for the North-Midlands Link that bypasses the bottleneck is £5.2-7.2bn (in 2019 prices). This is largely consistent with the estimates published by the Government in its 6-monthly updates to Parliament in October 2020 and March 2021 (£5-7bn). (Ref 1) It is roughly around 10% of the cost now quoted for the Midlands-London section of HS2 (which is being allowed to proceed).

It will take several years to construct the North-Midlands Link, so for a few years it will mean a construction cost outlay of around £1bn/year.

The good news and the not so good

The good news is that it’s ready to go: it’s ‘shovel ready’. It has Parliamentary Consent and around half of the land needed for it has already been acquired.

All such projects of course have local impacts. But this one has been the subject of the most careful of environmental assessments and treatment. It avoids urban areas, National Trust property, SSSIs…

Its custodian, HS2 Ltd, has also established a new approach to oversight of its construction and costs, learning the lessons from the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (built on time and budget), taking advantage of its more manageable scale than the much longer line being built into the heart of London and Birmingham.

The North-Midlands Link broadly parallels the ever-busy M6 motorway. The expanded and accelerated rail services that will follow its opening will allow more freight to go by rail (so fewer trucks on the M6) and fewer car journeys on it too, with a proportion of car users attracted by new, quicker and more reliable rail services. Great news for motorists too, then.

The bad news?

Although ready to go, although with a workforce lined up, although with benefits roughly double its costs, Government has cancelled it.

In its place

It might be guessed that its cancellation was to save money.

But no, in deciding that HS2 should not be allowed to continue north of the Midlands, Government announced there would be no savings. It wants to spend the money saved from not proceeding with HS2 into North West England/Yorkshire on other transport schemes instead.

People are more reliant on their cars than rail, so most of the money saved, we were told by Government, should be spent on road schemes instead: “this is what they’d want”.

Even its figures published at the time fail to back this up. When surveyed on the right Government priority for transport investment, the most popular overall choice was rail: 32% wanted either better local/commuter or long-distance rail services, whereas just 25% most wanted road improvements.

Although the North-Midlands Link will carry long-distance rail services, it will free up capacity for more and better local/commuter rail and railfreight services too. Surely motorists would also welcome (if they had been asked) fewer trucks on the motorways too?

A better M6 motorway?

Still to be fair, Government did say that: “We will….progress four major road schemes. This will include … improving the M6 south of Manchester to Birmingham.” But we were given no details of what this improvement would entail. Its busiest sections (Junctions 16 to 19 in Cheshire) have already been converted to smart motorways.

There are some committed investments for the M6, but none identifiable in the programme as possibilities for the next investment period. (Ref 2)

Anyway, there is a re-think on the wisdom of further Smart Motorway sections. So we just don’t know what this M6 investment promise means. Leave alone what its budget might be.

Or another rail project somewhere else?

When Government decided against the fully worked-up rail scheme to upgrade the connection between the North and Midlands, it didn’t see fit to propose any alternative rail investment in the area, oblivious to the need to act on what is a crucial and current constraint on the national rail system.

But it did propose new ideas elsewhere. For Bradford, for example, it proposed a new station and a new line to connect the city much better to Huddersfield. This is what was said at the time:

“We will be able to truly unleash growth and transform prospects, benefitting more people, more places, more quickly than under the previous plan for HS2, with key projects including ..[..].. investing over £2 billion for a brand new rail station and line connection for Bradford to give a 30 minute journey to Manchester via Huddersfield. (Ref 3) [emphasis added]

And following that:

  • “Today (14 November 2023), the Department for Transport is building on its promise of building a     brand-new railway station in Bradford by providing £400,000 for the local authority to kickstart master planning on the project.”

The original October 4th announcement had explained the scheme a little more fully:

  • “We will bring Bradford into Northern Powerhouse Rail by investing £2 billion, doubling capacity, almost halving journey times to Manchester and providing a new station. The new Bradford station will support regeneration efforts in the UK’s seventh-largest city.
  • “It will facilitate a new rail connection to Manchester via Huddersfield, almost halving journey times while enabling us to double the frequency of service and double the capacity with up to an extra 1,000 seats per hour. Bradford-Huddersfield will be able to go from 1 train per hour that takes 37 minutes, to at least 2 trains per hour and taking only 12 minutes. Bradford-Manchester will go from 55 minutes today to 30 minutes with Northern Powerhouse Rail.”

Wow! This sounds an exceptional improvement to be had from just £2bn expenditure that would entail not only building a new line in Bradford with a new station, but also separately building 5-6 miles of new line in a very constrained environment between Wyke and Brighouse.

True there is a long-closed railway track-bed that might be followed in part. But this is built over in places (including by a large industrial estate) and elsewhere it runs alongside new housing and recreational parks. The new Bradford-Huddersfield line would also need to cross, in short order, the M62 motorway, the River Calder, an operational canal and the Calder Valley railway.

And while this might deliver the promised shorter journey time to Huddersfield, it clearly cannot be plausibly done with such a small capital budget, and neither of course, could it be delivered anything like as soon as the North-Midlands Link.

“More quickly than under the previous plan for HS2”? Not a chance.

The advertised Bradford-Manchester journey time of 30 minutes would anyway not be deliverable until whatever scheme is settled on for Marsden-Manchester is also built. This may be a desirable scheme (no details are yet available), but the cost of all of this would of course be far, far, higher than the cost saved by not proceeding with the North-Midlands Link. And its delivery would be decades later.

The choice

The North-Midlands Link (NML) has progressed through a nine-year planning process. Its construction period is likely to be around 7 years. By way of contrast, a new fast route from Bradford to Manchester – however desirable that may be – will not be deliverable sooner than 2040, and most likely, later still. We should surely be honest about the timescales, at least.

We know that the NML has a good business case, with benefits roughly double its costs. For other ways of spending money such as the Bradford-Huddersfield (-Manchester) scheme, all we know is that no business case has been prepared:

“As usual, individual projects referenced in this document [Network North] will be subject to the approval of business cases.”

Different timescales, different decades

Bradford absolutely deserves better rail connectivity, but none of the expenditure on the ground would overlap with the delivery timescale of the NML. And neither would other new ideas announced when the North-Midlands Link was stopped. These projects are not substitutes for one another in funding terms meaningful to HM Treasury, because their costs arise in different time periods; actually in different decades.

This, then, is the choice. Do the right thing and admit that the North-Midlands Link should be allowed to proceed as planned, because there is nothing else available that can be implemented in the same timescale and nothing that will likely have the same scale of benefits.

Do that or take a leap into the dark.

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Ref 1 – Letter of 16th June 2021 from DfT Permanent Secretary to the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee

Ref 2 –

Ref 3 – Network North, Department for Transport October 2023