When Transport Secretary Chris Grayling scrapped rail electrification plans for the north of England last year, he reignited the touchpaper of debate around the government’s proclivity to prioritise London’s interests at the expense of the country’s other regions.

The indignation of northern leaders was both unsurprising and justified, particularly that of Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham who argued that “the disparity between transport in the north of England and London must now be addressed”.

Grayling’s rowback was a kick in the teeth, especially given that only days later he appeared to give the green light for Crossrail 2 to start work in the capital. Should the project, for which costs are estimated to be more than £30bn, really take precedence over desperately needed investment in the north’s creaking rail infrastructure? Absolutely not.

So, a new proposal for a fast rail link that would enable 1.3 million people in the north to reach four of the region’s biggest cities in less than an hour couldn’t be timelier.

Pan-northern body Transport for the North (TfN) is behind the new line, known as Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR). An ‘emerging vision’ of the project released by the group depicts a brand new line running between Liverpool and Leeds via Manchester, and also serving Bradford.

Additionally, it posits upgrades to the Hope Valley line between Sheffield and Manchester, as well as upgrades to the existing East Coast mainline from Leeds to Hull, and the Sheffield-Hull route via Doncaster. There are also plans for an upgraded line to stretch as far north as Newcastle via York, Darlington and Durham.

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Bad connection: transforming the north’s railway woes

The fundamental basis for NPR is the poor level of rail connectivity the north has endured for decades. According to TfN, only 10,000 people in the region can reach four cities or more within an hour by rail.

Roughly 75% of workers in the catchment area currently commute by car, with buses and trains accounting for only 7% and 4% respectively. In comparison, 45% of Londoners travelled to work using public transport in 2015.

TfN says a new line would pare current travelling times considerably. Journey times from Liverpool to Manchester Piccadilly, for instance, could take around 20 minutes; the quickest service at present takes around 50 minutes.

Moreover, if TfN’s overall plans are realised, it believes 850,000 new jobs could be created in the region by 2050. Regional gross value added could jump by £100bn to £397bn. NPR, says the body, will treble the number of businesses within 90 minutes of four or more cities and bring more than 108,000 businesses within 75 minutes of four or more of the region’s largest cities.

“The central idea behind NPR is around the connectivity of the six city regions.”

“The central idea behind NPR is around the connectivity of the six city regions of Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Hull, Sheffield and Newcastle, as well as with Manchester International Airport,” says TfN interim rail director for NPR Tim Wood.

“We’ve done an awful lot of economics and analysis work in terms of looking at businesses, as well as the driving of an independent economic review,” he adds. “We’ve also used High Speed North [a 2016 National Infrastructure Commission report] as a reference point.”

In total, NPR would take around 25 years to build over several stages. As described in TfN’s Strategic Transport Plan, NPR and the other planned transformational transport interventions will together cost in the region of £60bn-£70bn. This includes the cost of improving local highways with the transport body presently weighing up the construction of a new, partially tunnelled trans-Pennine road between Manchester and Sheffield, as well as better connections across the M60, M67 and M1.

Government funding and HS2

According to research undertaken by TfN, the north of England receives around £100 per person per year in terms of transport funding from the government. The plan is to increase this figure to £150 per person each year for the next 30 years, in order to meet projected costs.

“The vast majority of this work will be government-funded,” says Wood. “The only part that could potentially come from the third-party sector would be connections to airports and ports.”

TfN will no doubt take heart from the positive response NPR has already received. It officially launched a Strategic Transport Plan in January, which is currently in the middle of a three month consultation period. Thus far, the transport body has received 56 signatories from local authorities in favour of the plan.

NPR will also be hugely contingent on the progress of HS2, the network with which it plans to connect. With planning permission for work on phase one – London to Birmingham – approved in 2017, work on the line is expected to start later this year. However, permission for HS2’s northern section – twin branches to Manchester and Leeds – are yet to be ratified.

“In total, NPR would take around 25 years to build over several stages.”

“We will require HS2,” says Wood. “That would give us the six high-speed touchpoints from which to build our new network. On the west side, we are currently looking at Manchester-Liverpool and Manchester-Leeds connections. On the east side, we would look to build off the part of HS2 that comes up through Sheffield towards Leeds using other interventions.”

TfN was launched in 2014, as part of then-Chancellor George Osborne’s push to create a Northern Powerhouse to counterweight London’s economic dominance. From 1 April, it will become the first sub-national statutory transport body in England, having been passed successfully through the Commons and House of Lords. Crucially, this will afford it the ear of the Department of Transport, Network Rail, Highways England and HS2.

“We will have limited powers to start with,” admits Wood, “but these are likely to grow in time. The Transport Secretary will come back to us with his own plans, on which we will have an open discussion.”

Righting the wrongs of years of underinvestment

In the meantime, TfN is in the process of developing a strategic outline business case for NPR, to be presented to the Transport Secretary and relevant partners in December 2018. Elsewhere, autumn will see the arrival of new rolling stock for the region’s two main train operating companies, TransPennine and Northern.

Northern Powerhouse Rail has the potential to capitalise on the north of England’s “massive growth potential”, says Wood. And according to TfN figures, there has been a 176% increase in rail use in the north, but less than 4% of people in the region use the railway.

Does the project represent an opportunity to finally right the wrongs of decades of underinvestment in northern transport links? “Yes, and the best thing is that we finally know how to do it,” says Wood. “We’re going to be opening up the arteries of connectivity between our cities and rebalance the economy.”