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The Integrated Rail Plan - a £96bn own goal?

Norman Baker's picture
train passengers embarking

The most striking element of the recent Integrated Rail Plan was the reception it received. Here was the government committing itself to a huge £96 billion investment in rail - “the biggest ever public investment in Britain’s rail network” - and it was almost universally slated, particularly by those in the Midlands and the north of England whom it was most seeking to please and whom it will benefit most.

So what went wrong and how did the Government manage to score a £96 billion own goal? The answer lies not in the contents of the Plan which, although it has its faults and limitations, is overall positive and reasonably coherent. No, the explanation lies elsewhere.

It is certainly regrettable that the promised high-speed line between Manchester and Leeds has been pulled, and this accounts for much of the local anger. It is particularly unfortunate that Bradford, Britain’s seventh largest city, which has poor connectivity to the railway network, will not now get its new station.

Even so, the Plan does promise a new journey time of 33 minutes between Leeds and Manchester, down from the present 55, and just 12 minutes between Bradford and Leeds.

As well as Bradford, Leeds is seen as the big loser, losing not only the new Manchester high speed line but also with the decision to turn the eastern leg of HS2 into a stump that ends at the existing East Midlands Parkway station.

More seriously, Andrew Adonis, the Labour transport secretary who kicked the whole thing off, suggested the decision to extend HS2 to Manchester but not Leeds means that the “economic geography of England may be seriously deformed” as a result

There is also a legitimate concern that the continual paring back of HS2 takes it further and further away from the original concept and makes it less and less viable as a result. We have successively lost the link between HS1 and HS2 through or under Camden that would have enabled, for instance, through journeys from Edinburgh to Paris, the spur to Heathrow, and now the eastern leg to Leeds.

There is also some validity in the view put forward by Grant Shapps that having high speed trains running on conventional lines east of East Midlands Parkway will actually enable a better service for places like Huddersfield and Wakefield than would have been the case under the previous plans.

Leeds itself will benefit in other ways. There are promised upgrades to the east coast main line that will knock up to 25 minutes off journey times. If that can be achieved, that is an astonishing gain.

Electrification of the whole Midland main line is back on the table, as indeed it should be. Overall, we are promised 180 miles of new electrified line, including the whole of the Transpennine main line from Manchester to York.

And underplayed but hugely welcome is the commitment to a light rail scheme for Leeds and West Yorkshire, Leeds being the largest city in western Europe without a mass transit system.

There is also good news in the Plan for freight. Improved gauge clearance on the Transpennine route will for the first time allow shipping containers to move along this route and beyond on rail wagons. Extra tracks will double or even treble capacity along some stretches, allowing space for freight and allowing fast trains to overtake slower ones. And the electrification plans mean the ability to move freight over much longer distances with electric rather than diesel power.

And there was welcome news for fares with £360 million committed to reform the fares and ticketing system and the rollout of contactless, pay-as-you-go ticketing at 700 urban stations, including around 400 in the north of England. We’ll continue to campaign for these reforms to be implemented as soon as possible, and for a rail fare freeze for 2022.

Of course there are downsides to the Plan. Besides the loss of new lines across to Bradford and Leeds and the impact on the viability of HS2, there must be a real concern that opting instead for upgrading existing lines will lead to years of disruption and a bonanza for the rail replacement bus industry. The upgrading of the west coast main line under the last Labour government affected services for years and turned out to be very expensive.

The CBI said that “areas most sorely in need of development will lose out as a result of the scaled back plans.” In other words, levelling up is being undermined. They also accused the government of moving the goalposts at the 11th hour. Perhaps this was the explanation for the PM’s own goal?

So yes, the Plan is a rowing back – a £89 billion row back - but the improvements now unveiled are real ones that are definitely worth having. What Network Rail and the rail industry generally now needs to do is deliver these improvements on time and within budget.                                                                                      

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