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Submission to Transport Select Committee – implications of the Integrated Rail Plan for the economy, capacity and connectivity

  • Research

Greengauge 21 welcomes the opportunity to provide evidence on the Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) as published in November 2021. Many of the Committee’s lines of enquiry are difficult to address with certainty because IRP outcomes remain the subject of further studies. Options for the Eastern arm of HS2, for instance, are to be the subject of a fresh study (in which the original scheme is apparently not at this stage ruled out).

For that reason, definitive answers to the following areas of Committee interest need to be qualified:

  • The contribution that the IRP will make to rail capacity and connectivity for (a) passengers and (b) freight in (i) the Midlands and the North and (ii) the UK
  • Whether and how the IRP will “level up” communities in the Midlands and the North
  • How the IRP will affect rail infrastructure and services outside the Midlands and the North
  • How the rail schemes in the IRP will integrate and interact with HS2.

On the other hand, addressing the Committee’s questions on IRP process, outcomes, and the way forward:

  • How the rail improvement schemes in the IRP were selected, and whether those selections represent equity between and within regions
  • Whether the IRP represents value for money for UK taxpayers
  • The challenges to central Government, Great British Railways, regional and local authorities, transport bodies and other stakeholders in delivering the IRP

are more straightforward.

Overall, we make a number of observations that we hope will help the Committee on these matters, drawing on our earlier (published) work, as set out under the following headings:

  • the merits and de-merits of the IRP process
  • the strengths and weaknesses of the IRP outcomes
  • how best to take the IRP forward.

Greengauge 21 published a response to the IRP in November 2021, which provides more detail on these questions.

IRP Process

When Transport for the North – and then Midlands Connect – were formed, both organisations looked at the question of rail connectivity, especially in an east-west direction, since it was taken that HS2 would address north-south connectivity needs.

The Department for Transport sought to rationalise a planning process in which several major capital investments were being considered separately. It developed a ‘touchpoint’ approach to examine where Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) and Midlands Engine Rail (MER) would have interfaces with HS2 and where the provision of HS2 (north-south) infrastructure could also help meet east-west connectivity aims.

The IRP process built on this approach and on work carried out by the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) which had been asked to advise Government on the ‘Rail Needs’ of the North/Midlands. This led to the NIC setting a budget for rail enhancement across the North/Midlands. Greengauge 21 critically reviewed the work carried out by the National Infrastructure Commission in January 2021.

On balance we found the NIC approach that introduced a budget for the IRP compliant with Treasury-set national infrastructure spending limits a helpful development. As the NIC advice and analysis made clear, not all of the rail projects being examined across the Midlands and North could be implemented without significantly exceeding their budget cap. This meant that the IRP would inevitably need to make choices which had hitherto been avoided, especially in the North of England.

The process followed in the IRP therefore was an exercise in picking from a menu of candidate projects, some of which have interfaces with each other, and some of which had overlapping objectives[1].

The project menu on which the IRP has been created took the form of a short-list and therefore it cannot be evidenced that the IRP is the best available overall rail capital expenditure plan.

IRP outcomes

  1. Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR)

While the IRP concludes that only part of Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) should be built (west but not east of the Pennines) the more advanced rival scheme (Trans-Pennine Route Upgrade (TRU)) is endorsed, including with added capacity and enhanced gauge for freight.

The Committee might like to probe whether the NPR selection is wise (being apparently based on a focus on shortening journey times between Leeds and Manchester) or whether other choices would have been made if the greater priority was to add capacity.[2]

Part of the NPR that is retained in the IRP offers a new line between Manchester and Liverpool, but over such a roundabout that it will be slower than the existing connection between the two cities.

2. HS2 Phase 2b: Eastern arm

For the Eastern arm of HS2, the IRP leaves open a wide range of possible approaches[3], as evidenced by the report into strategic alternatives published on 24th January 2022.

The curtailment of the Eastern arm of HS2 in the IRP means that, paradoxically, some cities will be better inter-connected: Nottingham and Derby, previously bypassed, will now be able to join the list of cities with a direct HS2 service; and Sheffield (and Chesterfield), as it happens, will get just as fast a connection with London as the full HS2 plan had provided.

In our review of the HS2 Eastern arm in 2020, we showed how adapting it to serve Nottingham could form a basis for transforming the nation’s key longer distance inter-regional route (‘cross country’[4]). This is the key NE – SW axis which links more cities together than either the west or east coast main lines (but doesn’t serve London).

This in turn supports a proposition of upgrading the East Coast Main Line (ECML), introducing 140 mile/h operation from Nottinghamshire (Newark) to Newcastle and adding capacity where needed – and considering high-speed rail in the ECML corridor – an easier (lower cost/mile) proposition than the now-suspended HS2 East alignment (which followed the Midland Main Line (MML) corridor). This new option also has the benefit of services from the south approaching Leeds over a quicker route from the east. It supports the creation of:

  • A faster London-Leeds-Bradford service (operating via Newark and Hambleton Junction and a potential new line around Doncaster)
  • A new and significantly faster NE-SW cross country corridor, improving cross-country connectivity through to Cardiff and Bristol
  • Faster journey times between North East England and London/Birmingham
  • A means to provide additional East Coast Main Line capacity.

It converts the HS2 network from a ‘Y’ shape to an ‘X’ shape. The Committee should note that this approach, consistent with the IRP, will offer a greater and more diverse set of benefits in comparison with the original HS2 plans. It would also help redress the absence, in the IRP, of investment plans in West Yorkshire specifically (where it is clearly needed) and more generally on the eastern side of the country.

3. HS2 Phase 2b: Western arm

On 24th January 2022, the process of seeking Parliamentary Powers for the western arm of HS2 Phase 2b was launched. Although the associated DfT press statements don’t make it clear, this comprises not only Crewe-Manchester but also Crewe-Wigan (the ‘Golborne link’). This was fore-shadowed by the IRP.

It can be seen that, very largely, the IRP is a selection of (parts of) three large new rail projects. It is not what we would expect to see as an output from a strategic planning process focussed on addressing the transport needs of the North and Midlands.

Taking IRP forward

Committee Call for Evidence Question: [what are] the challenges to central Government, Great British Railways, regional and local authorities, transport bodies and other stakeholders in delivering the IRP?

Greengauge 21  supports the adoption of a capital budget, set at regional levels (in this case five of them together, North East, Yorkshire/Humber, North West, West and East Midlands).

With a complex railway geography across the Midlands and the North of England, all of the local, regional, and long-distance passenger service options and rail freight needs should be examined together, rather than basing decisions on a review of short-listed NPR, TRU and HS2 Phase 2b options which are focussed on longer distance higher speed services.

This examination need not be a long process. The strategic planning work needed is a careful sifting of assessed needs and opportunities. This should be done by the authority or agency that has overall responsibility for the operation (and planned operation) of the national rail network and that means (following Williams-Shapps) Great British Railways[5]. This work would of course take into account key relevant Government policy aims such as transport sector decarbonisation and levelling up, and local and regional policies and plans on matters such as economic development.

We would expect such an approach to overcome a weakness of the NPR+MRE+HS2 basis for the IRP which, amongst other limitations, appears to have concentrated on connections between major cities while avoiding some difficult questions that arise on today’s rail network’s ‘nodal’ points in city centres.

Only by taking this approach can priorities be compared for competing propositions such as:

  • A programme of busy/longer railway line electrification, which, since the railway in the south east is nearly entirely electrified while elsewhere it remains largely diesel-only, has an inbuilt ‘levelling up’ component, as well as a great contribution to decarbonisation
  • Achieving a major increase in railfreight (and a commensurate reduction on longer haul HGV movements) with clear benefits for Net Zero commitments
  • Improving the attractiveness of long-distance rail to provide a competitive alternative to short haul flights (again reducing carbon emissions)
  • Expanding business and commuter catchments to strengthen city and regional economies
  • Plans for rail capacity investment in city centres (outstanding questions remain for Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Bradford, Liverpool, and Sheffield).

It should also provide a means of reconciling competing uses of scarce capacity, for instance on main lines in metropolitan areas, where competing views may arise on the virtues of adding local services and new stations as opposed to supporting an expansion/improvement of longer distance (freight and passenger) services. Under Williams-Shapps, this will be the responsibility of GBR working to present key policy choices for Ministerial decision.

The role of Government (DfT) should be to set the terms of reference for this work and to hold GBR to account in its delivery.

Once a suitable version of a Strategic Plan is agreed on this basis, a set of projects and programmes can be set in motion, working through the usual business case steps within agreed budgets.

 Greengauge 21, January 2022


[1] On the overlapping point, across the Pennines, between Manchester and Leeds, two competing projects had been under development for 6 years with overlaps between them that should have been apparent throughout – and well before the IPR was published.

[2] The section of route east of the Pennines between Huddersfield and Leeds is the busier section of route, and only partially relieved by the Trans Pennine Route Upgrade.

[3] Although it remains restricted in scope. While it contemplates the virtues of a high-speed line in the East Coast Main Line corridor north of Newark, it still insists on a southern approach to Leeds from the west via Wakefield rather than the obviously faster route from the east via Hambleton Junction. The latter would support London-Leeds-Bradford high-speed services without expensive additional platform capacity at Leeds (turnround capacity would be needed at Bradford instead which is less of a problem to provide, and there would still be capacity questions to address on the approaches to Leeds station given the combination of ambitions to expand trans-Pennine service frequencies as well).

[4] This long distance corridor runs broadly NE-SW and connects Edinburgh/Newcastle/Darlington/York with Bristol/Cardiff/Plymouth/Southampton via Birmingham.

[5] We would expect GBR to work with a broader remit and have a deeper range of expertise than Network Rail has today