The government’s decision to scrap Northern Powerhouse Rail and the eastern leg of HS2 in favour of a piecemeal set of rail improvements breaks Boris Johnson’s 2019 election promise that both projects would be delivered in full. Local leaders are upset. Several Conservative MPs have spoken out against the plan. Labour have accused ministers of betrayal. The government has focused on the costs saved – £96bn, some £11bn less than the cost of a full HS2, while achieving just under half of the £39bn NPR project – and claims that improvements will be delivered faster.
Looking beyond the immediate political fallout, the new integrated rail plan does suggest that the government is learning how to plan long-term infrastructure projects better. However, there are also signs it is slipping into the familiar habit of excessive central control. Johnson says “levelling up can’t wait” – but it can’t cut out local expertise either.
Having an integrated plan containing a core pipeline of investment that can be expanded if more funding becomes available is welcome and will deliver benefits more quickly than brand new lines. But some critical decisions are yet to be made and the plan lacks detail in key areas.
There is little detail, for example, on how improvements in train capacity and frequency will be achieved, nor has the government published the economic analysis – including benefit-cost ratios – on which its decisions were based. Of particular concern is the absence of any decision about how the government plans to deal with the congested ‘Castlefield corridor’ (a bottleneck in Manchester that frequently causes disruption across the northern network from Liverpool to South Yorkshire) – or on selecting rolling stock.
However, an integrated review is the right way to take forward transport policy. It considers multiple solutions and how they might interact, and avoids the fixed vision often associated with large infrastructure projects like HS2, which focused on building a case solely for a high-speed rail line without comparing with alternatives such as expanding the M1 motorway or incremental improvements to railway capacity.
The integrated rail plan, which wisely promises to avoid early over-specification of solutions, focuses instead on reducing journey times and recognises that this can be done in a variety of ways – building new lines, electrifying existing lines or making it easier for intercity and commuter services to pass each other. It proposes a mixture of interventions across the north, tuned to specific local concerns. This is an improvement from the previous one-size-fits-all approach, but is dependent on the interventions being wanted by local leaders and properly linked together.
The plan includes the electrification of the Midland Main Line (London to Sheffield and Nottingham), reversing the cancellation of a similar plan in 2017 done as a result of the ballooning costs of electrifying the Great Western Mainline (London to Bristol).
The integrated rail plan proposes that, as then, Network Rail will be responsible for managing the electrification process. How successfully this will proceed will depend on Network Rail having learned the lessons from the failure of the Great Western project – in particular, the need to create new UK capacity to electrify existing train lines.
There is time to prepare, which is welcome, but the plan for three simultaneous electrification projects (Midland Mainline, Leeds to Huddersfield, and Leeds to Bradford) all in the late 2020s is risky. The government must now aid the growth of supply chains and ensure skills exist in the workforce before the construction challenge ramps up in 2025.
While the integrated rail plan is a move in the right direction in regards to planning, its proposed management structure looks like a backward step. The plan outlines a clear management structure responsible for delivery, but in doing so disempowers local leaders. Transport for the North, the UK’s first statutory sub-national transport body on its foundation in 2018, has seen its responsibilities switch to central government, which is now promising to deliver a selection of the body’s schemes. Government should have left infrastructure decisions with northern leaders and could have provided procurement support and expertise to Transport for the North in accordance with the powers they were originally granted in 2018.
Instead, the plan promises to devolve control of budgets and delivery of network upgrades to ‘powerful regional divisions’ within the new Great British Railways and its predecessor Network Rail. While this will provide a sole point of accountability for local rail services in specific local areas, it risks losing regional planning expertise that has been built up over the last three years.
As a result, the positive steps of adopting an integrated rail plan could unravel if it becomes another example of central government choosing what it thinks local areas need and then leaving regions to deal with the consequences. Ministers must instead work with regional leaders to resolve outstanding questions, declare how they will support the plan’s delivery and explain how it links with other strategies – such as decarbonising transport and ‘bus back better’ – for the UK to have a properly integrated transport network.