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North can’t wait for rail improvements

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Although it has not been given a catchy title – the Long Term Rail Strategy Update – this new report from Transport for the North is important and invigorating. It is hidden from immediate view behind Transport for the North’s Strategic Transport Plan but with a focus on the 2020s decade and on the needs and opportunities of the existing rail network, the Update shows the scale of transformation expected from the North’s rail system.

Greengauge 21 Associate Director, John Jarvis concludes: “if rail is going to deliver the economic growth that the Northern Powerhouse seeks, we can’t wait until the 2030s and 40s for rail improvements, so this report and acting on its conclusions will be essential.”

The genesis of the Update lies in earlier work by Rail North – the part of TfN that leads on rail franchising – and more immediate matters than the longer term ‘Northern Powerhouse Rail’ plans. Implementation of the latter is put on a timescale of 2036 – 2040/50. What the Update provides is a guide to the complementary work needed to accommodate HS2 when it opens in stages across the North over the 2026-2033 period.

First identifying a set of problems (‘gaps’) the Update goes on to show how they can be addressed, setting out the standards required from the north’s hierarchy of train services. And given its contributory role to the oversight of the Northern and Trans Pennine Express (TPE) franchises, each of which is promising a radical overhaul of services and train fleets, the team responsible has the levers to bring its ambitions to fruition.

To create the sense of a fully joined up, customer focused network, the Update calls for an end to price anomalies, better connections with other transport modes and even contemplates zonal fares in urban areas. It points out the slowness of the rail network, with Middlesbrough and Newcastle linked by a train service that manages just 23 mph (on a crow-fly distance basis). Even on the main north-south routes, it shows that while the West Coast (WCML) and Midland Main Lines have seen quicker journey times over the last fifteen years, timings on the East Coast have, if anything, got longer.

Many of its recommendations on infrastructure enhancement will require further development, but the report makes clear time is pressing, to accommodate the continuing demand growth across the North’s rail network; and to support expanding commuter markets that will come from the expected growth of the North’s economy, much of which will be in the major cities; and to get the existing rail network ready to accommodate HS2 and maximise its benefits. As the Update points out, some of the projects intended as part of the Great North Rail Project currently underway have not been finalised. Some of these outstanding items may be the ‘hard bits’, so the additional evidence the report puts forward could be critical.

So, what are the key enhancements the Update calls for? Completion of existing programmes come first, and it wants to capture the 6 trains/hour 40-minute Manchester-Leeds timing promised from the electrification of the route via Huddersfield. And it is eloquent on the inescapable need to find a solution to the capacity challenge of Manchester’s Castlefield Corridor.

On that subject, the Update points to some practical solutions that bring much wider benefits. The capacity limitation at Manchester Airport station is an obstacle to Castlefield Corridor service expansion as longer trains come into service. This problem could be overcome, it points out, if through/cross Airport services to Chester could be accommodated, and perhaps Stoke-on-Trent and Sheffield too could gain a more direct access to the airport by rail too. This is described as a priority for the 2020s: so it’s a good job there is a protected alignment for a western rail link at the airport! If this could also lead to a valuable new Sheffield-Manchester Airport-Manchester-Preston-Barrow/Cumbria-Scotland rail route, this would, incidentally, be an ideal outcome for one of the economic linkages that TfN seeks to reinforce in its wider transport strategy (also published 16th January), joining the North’s dispersed locations of advanced manufacturing and nuclear energy.

The Update is clear it wants to see enhancements to the East Coast Main Line ahead of HS2 completion. In particular, it points to a capacity challenge ‘north of York’ that puts at risk the accommodation of the full aspirations of the current TPE franchise.

It also calls for an examination of the capacity needs across Leeds and Sheffield city centres. The new ‘touch points’ between the existing rail network and HS2 Phase 2b provide welcome and necessary access to city centre stations and create the opportunity of much improved through high-speed service plans. While in the case of Sheffield, HS2 Ltd has been able to save £1bn and the cost of a new elevated station at Meadowhall, the costs of improvements needed at these city centre stations and their approaches remain to be faced. Adoption of cross-city (rather than terminating) route patterns for the local rail network are likely to be a key part of this, as is electrification. And here the Update offers another valuable pointer, with the observation that electrification of Sheffield-Doncaster, already a critical link in the cross-country network, could create new route opportunities for HS2 services.

The Update has not neglected freight. It speaks of the need to look carefully at the northern section of the WCML for example to see how freight can be accommodated better as services expand, as well as seeking to create better east west paths for freight trains such as Liverpool-Drax which often suffer such extended journey times at present.

And it sensibly keeps open options where it is too early to reach conclusions. So, if it proves impossible to achieve the target journey times and frequency by upgrading the existing Sheffield-Manchester railway (via the Hope Valley), it suggests there will be a need to think further about new alignments.

In our view, it is not too late to look at this corridor on an inter-modal basis and with solutions such as road vehicle Eurotunnel-style shuttles in mind, it now having been concluded in TfN’s wider transport strategy that a ’long’ road tunnel under the Peak District offers poor value for money.  So consideration is shifting to a short road tunnel in the A628 corridor instead – yes that’s Woodhead, in railway-speak!