George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse is at risk of dereliction before it even gets started. Our Right Track North campaign is calling on the Chancellor to take urgent action in this week’s Budget and the upcoming Spending Review to make sure vital investments are made in the north of England's rail network to get the project back on track.
The Northern Powerhouse is the Chancellor’s vision of northern cities transformed - rebalancing the economy and establishing the north as an economic force. Big investment in rail is a fundamental part of achieving these goals, enhancing services between a string of cities and making them more than the sum of their parts.
Now these plans risk falling apart before they've even got going.
First, after months of rumours, the Department for Transport has been forced to step in to address underperformance at Network Rail. Delays and missed targets mean most of the projects within the £38 billion investment plan look like being shelved while new boss, Sir Peter Hendy, establishes what it is possible to rescue from the current Control Period.
Second, the Government has been embarrassed by some hugely inflated budgetary claims regarding funding from the Northern Powerhouse. For example, rather than the claimed £13 billion rail investment, the real figure looks more like £3 billion – this is less than the figure earmarked for major road schemes in the area and it's not likely to transform rail in the area.
The Chancellor must address this - and not just to save his blushes. Much of the rationale for the Northern Powerhouse makes good sense. Major investments are needed to end the dominance of the South East. Links between key cities in the North are currently substandard and the rail network is ideally placed to address this. Such investment is badly overdue, as the 'howling banshee' Pacers that trundle along busy commuter lines prove.
The Right Track North campaign is calling on the Chancellor to work with the DfT and Network Rail to limit the delays to electrification schemes. While some major projects are being held back, the risk is that everything other than the problematic Great Western electrification will end up in the sidings. There are affordable smaller schemes and missing links which would bring major benefit to rail users and which should still be going ahead.
Second, upgrades to services remain vital. There must not be any backsliding over improving rolling stock and removing the Pacers from service on Northern Rail. The simplification of the ticketing system also remains a priority and will help drive passenger numbers. The Government must reiterate that neither of these commitments will be delayed.
Finally, the Chancellor needs to get serious on funding the Northern Powerhouse. While Network Rail has struggled to make progress with capital projects, income from franchising has consistently exceeded expectations. This money should be used to address skills shortages and weakness in the supply chain which are holding back delivery. There is also a case for redeploying some of the billions sitting in the major roads budget for damaging and dangerous Smart Motorway schemes and other road building. Not only will these drive up air pollution and carbon emissions, but it is questionable Highways England will be able to deliver them at all at least on time and within budget.
It is possible to get the Northern Powerhouse back on track. The Chancellor needs to act now to make it happen.