The Government has responded to the National Infrastructure Commission by announcing big upgrades to the north of England’s rail network. But despite the Commission’s lukewarm reaction to a trans-Pennine road tunnel, the Treasury appears hell-bent on the scheme.
The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has published its recommendations for transport investment in northern England. Timed to enable George Osborne to allocate funds of around £300m in the Budget, the Commission, chaired by former Labour transport minister Andrew Adonis, clearly identifies rail as the priority to make the Northern Powerhouse a reality.
The Commission's support for rail is very much in line with a number of recent studies, including Transport for the North's emerging strategy. It highlights the major strategic benefits of the HS3 rail line linking the string of cities from Liverpool across to Hull and Newcastle with "higher speed, higher capacity, higher frequency" rail services. An early priority is better links between Leeds and Manchester, which together represent around half of northern England's economic output, and which the Commission argues should be in place by 2022. There is also an important call to integrate a new HS2 line with improved rail services across the north, echoing our call for the new high speed services to connect better with the existing rail lines. The final headline for rail is that Manchester Piccadilly should get an overhaul, enabling it to better fulfil its role as a hub for improved and expanding services.
On roads, the Commission is less positive, making just one notable recommendation. First, it recommends bringing forward plans for more lanes on the M62 between Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds. In doing so, it potentially undermines some of the benefits of major investment in new rail infrastructure. Importantly, with the Government likely to find itself back in the Supreme Court over its failure to tackle air pollution, it ignores the environmental and health constraints of expanding a road which is already the subject of air quality management issues along virtually its entire route between Liverpool and Manchester.
The NICs report is notably lukewarm about the idea of a new Trans-Pennine road tunnel. Eyeing the enormous cost (around £6bn) and environmental damage of boring an 18 mile tunnel underneath the Peak District National Park, the most positive Adonis' Commission can bring itself to be is recommending further research - but even here it is clear rail options should be considered, too.
In spite of the Commission's findings, the Treasury has announced it will spent £75m on further research into the tunnel project. This is a highly questionable use of scarce funds. It is more than the high priority HS3 link between Leeds and Manchester has been awarded, outstrips the entire Department for Transport budget to support cycling outside London, and takes place at a time when cuts are being made to vital local transport like buses.
The Chancellor has vowed to make the north of England's transport infrastructure 'fit for the future'. This should mean a modern, high quality rail network spanning the north and supported by excellent local public transport. This is vision the Chancellor needs to get behind rather than wasting money on damaging roads.
Image courtesy of Jose Francisco Del Valle Mojica via Flickr.