The Integrated Rail Plan has generated lots of adverse publicity, but how does it really compare with what people in the Midlands and North thought they were promised? Artists impression of the previously proposed Leeds HS2 station - image by HS2 Ltd.
The IRP offers an integrated, resilient network which increases capacity and delivers regional connectivity by adopting the smart Railfuture plan for the Eastern leg of HS2 (HS2E) to Nottingham and Sheffield. However, it fails Bradford, leaves a Leeds – Sheffield gap still to be decided, plans have yet to be costed and phased in detail, and funding is not committed.
The good bits
There’s a lot to welcome in the Integrated Rail Plan. Following on from COP26, decarbonising our railways is more important than ever, and electrification of the Midland Main Line (which must include the direct route from East Midlands Parkway to Sheffield via the Erewash Valley line) and Trans Pennine routes will bring faster, more reliable and greener trains. Manchester will be just 33 minutes from Leeds, virtually the same as the original proposal, although it will be over 10 years before this is achieved.
Providing a credible direct high speed link between Birmingham and Nottingham is a major transport objective for the East and West Midlands regions, long campaigned for by Railfuture. The revised plan provides for frequent direct high speed trains from Birmingham to Nottingham, so particularly facilitating improved regional rail services in the East Midlands and Lincolnshire. Passengers at Nottingham and Sheffield will get better times to London and Birmingham.
The proposed mass transit system for West Yorkshire is badly needed, based on light rail to attract passengers away from their cars; capacity in Leeds station could also be freed up for new high speed services by converting some existing rail services to tram-train.
Contactless integrated ticketing has worked well in London for years, so it’s good that this will be funded and rolled out in the Midlands and the North, despite Transport for the North funding for it having been cut previously. The announcement by Rail Delivery Group of a single smartcard supplier for multiple train operators will tackle the current lack of interoperability.
Railfuture has long advocated the smart alternative of connecting HS2E to East Midlands Parkway rather than bypassing Nottingham and Sheffield, and of integrating HS2 with local transport networks. To quote the plan, trains will run to the places people want to go.
But it’s not all good news. We are disappointed that Transport for the North (TfN) had not produced definitive plans to convince the government that a dedicated high speed railway routed through Bradford should go ahead. The lack of Bradford journey times in the plan shows that Bradford misses out badly, effectively being bypassed – don't people want to go there?
There remains a big question mark over how to connect Leeds. The plan recognises the need for faster journeys and more capacity between Leeds and Sheffield, but it's disappointing that another study (the last was in 2015) on the Leeds HS2 station is needed to get to a realistic solution. A single Leeds station to serve existing, Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) and HS2 services is required. Ideally this should be a through station not a terminus, to facilitate services between the North West and North East, and between the North East and South West, rather than disrupting the CrossCountry service as the previous HS2E plan did. It should enable a fast approach for high-speed services from both Sheffield and Manchester, avoiding conflict with stopping services. This is the missing piece of the jigsaw which together with electrification from Leeds to Sheffield could complete the capacity and connectivity needed.
Although the emphasis in the plan is on journey times, the real benefit is in capacity gain; a pitfall that HS2 promoters originally fell into. One of the arguments for HS2 was that it would not be possible to deliver that capacity gain for that cost by enhancing the existing network, which would also cause substantial disruption; why has that argument not been heeded for NPR, which will be an upgrade of the existing Trans Pennine route?
There is nothing new for Manchester – Sheffield, which will need electrification and extra tracks to achieve acceptable journey times. Manchester to Sheffield should be viewed as a core East - West route in the same way as Manchester to Leeds and Birmingham to Nottingham. The important region of North Lincolnshire, formerly South Humberside, should benefit from the integrated plan.
The enhancement of the East Coast Main Line (ECML) south to London is welcome, but there is no capacity enhancement between York and Newcastle, which is necessary for modal shift, particularly for freight.
The hidden opportunities
As well as providing quicker journey times between Liverpool and Manchester, the new build line between Warrington and Manchester will remove longer-distance services from the Castlefield Corridor, relieving the bottleneck so that local commuter services can be more reliable.
The rebuilt line between Manchester and Marsden fits with the Huddersfield – Dewsbury Transpennine Route Upgrade scheme that Network Rail are already progressing. In addition to fast Manchester – Leeds services, this makes possible faster Manchester – Bradford services via Huddersfield and Halifax.
There are now significant rail freight flows crossing Manchester sharing congested passenger routes. The revised plan, with gauge clearance and electrification of the Standedge route, offers an opportunity to increase freight capacity on the West to East axis, as long as extra tracks are provided to avoid high-speed services conflicting with freight and stopping services. The same is also true of the Erewash Valley and Midland Main Line. The reinstated Fiddler's Ferry route between Warrington and Manchester, linked with Railfuture proposals to relieve the Castlefield Corridor, could also create a West - East freight bypass of Manchester round to Stalybridge. The issue of lack of freight capacity west of Manchester remains.
The Transpennine Route Upgrade scheme also increases the capacity of the Calder Valley route for freight, but there is no mention of electrification for that route, which would be a major benefit for decarbonisation of freight transport.
The planned electrification of the Leeds – New Pudsey – Bradford line offers the opportunity to run faster more frequent electric through services from Bradford to London via the ECML, which would also reduce platform occupation by ECML services that would otherwise terminate at Leeds..
The Manchester HS2 station is identified as a 'turnback' rather than just a terminus, indicating the capability to run through London – Manchester – Leeds services, as proposed by Railfuture, with even quicker journey times than the upgraded ECML route. Attracting more traffic to the Western leg will ensure that the investment in HS2 is financially sound. If designed correctly and operated slickly, the dwell time at this turnback station will only be 3 minutes more than at the underground through station that had been suggested, saving a substantial difference in capital cost. However, this may slightly increase operational complexity.
The plan recognises that work needs to be phased within the capability of the rail industry to deliver. The spend on rail enhancements, including HS2, is already planned to grow 35% between 2018/9 and 2022/3. A gradually increasing spend beyond 2023, within the rail industry's capability to grow its skilled resources, would allow projects to be delivered sooner, but it is not clear whether the plan is based on such a growth trajectory, or whether it will be flat after 2023.
There are no funding commitments yet, except £100m to start the West Yorkshire mass transit programme and £100m for the Leeds HS2 station study. The rail industry needs the certainty that comes from a committed and funded pipeline of work to give confidence to invest in growing the skilled resources needed to deliver programmes cost-effectively. Without that investment in skills, there is a strong probability of projects going over budget.
There is a long history of governments chopping and changing rail plans. The adverse reaction to the plan and the lack of committed funding makes it more likely that the plan will be changed again in 2 or 3 years' time, which would have the effect of delaying delivery of the benefits needed for decarbonisation, the Northern economy and Northern communities even further. The Manchester Mayor's suggestion that land value capture be used to help fund Northern Powerhouse Rail is welcome, but that will be far short of the amount that would be needed for the full scheme which Transport for the North wanted; it could be used to fund later add-ons to the Integrated Rail Plan, but changing the plan now would only have the effect of delaying its progress. That must not happen; the plan must be funded by the government and seen through.
The most effective way to decarbonise transport is by modal shift of passengers and freight from air and road to rail. The plan delivers additional capacity needed for modal shift (although not as much as TfN wanted), and quicker journey times to make rail more competitive. However to make modal shift happen, government must take other policy initiatives alongside the plan to make rail transport more attractive, convenient, and affordable.
The plan aims to deliver the maximum improvement in regional connectivity within the budget which the government believes it can afford. There has clearly been a political failure by both the government and TfN to agree on a realistic plan and budget, leading to Northern MPs of all political persuasions being very unhappy.
The recommendation of the Union Connectivity Report to design, implement and manage UKNET, a strategic transport network (not just rail) for the UK may be behind the Department for Transport taking responsibility on itself for delivery of the programme. This may also open the way for devolution of responsibility for local routes to the Sub National Transport Bodies such as TfN, bringing the local input to decision-making advocated by Railfuture to create a vibrant growing railway which is responsive to, and designed around, the needs and aspirations of the areas it serves.
Revisiting the plan will only delay the benefits further, so the way forward must be to publicise and explain the hidden opportunities identified above that are already baked into the plan, so that the public have the full picture of what is proposed, with detailed project definition, timescales, phasing and funding.
Railfuture will seek more detail of the plan to ensure that it will deliver its objectives: an HS2 that serves all regions effectively, properly integrated into the rail network; a Trans Pennine upgrade that is actually feasible and can be staged, bringing benefits both to intermediate places and freight; regional rail developments exploiting these increases in capacity, based on Birmingham, Nottingham, Sheffield and Leeds; electrification of the MML; and a serious upgrade of the ECML.
We will campaign for the hidden opportunities to be fulfilled: Leeds, where we need a single station with through capability rather than a terminus, faster journey times and electrification to Sheffield, and a route from Dewsbury which has a fast approach, avoiding conflict with stopping services; a Leeds mass transit system based on light rail not bus; a commitment for faster Bradford to Manchester and London services and for high speed Leeds to London via Manchester services; a rolling programme of electrification covering routes not specifically mentioned in the plan; and a fully funded Rail Network Enhancements Pipeline.
Railfuture brief on the Integrated Rail Plan
Integrated Rail Plan for the Midlands and the North
Transport for the North letter to the Transport Secretary proposing a way forward
Railfuture Northern Powerhouse and High speed rail campaigns