Railfuture is strongly represented in the North with three active branches - North East, North West and Yorkshire. This gives Railfuture the advantage of geographical coverage, on the ground contacts with the rail operators and direct dialogue with stakeholders. Railfuture is non-political and focussed on campaigning for a bigger, better railway for passengers and freight customers.

Any such campaigning has to be sustainable in economic terms and feasible in terms of potential delivery. This is not about the nostalgia of recreating a bucolic past that exists more in the mind’s eye than social reality, it is about making a proper business case for serious investment in the railways in Northern England. The industrial revolution started in Northern England and this was about making money in a way previously unheard of. Railway development facilitated a process that had already started. It should continue to do so in the form of facilitating the Northern Powerhouse economic concept, but should also take environmental and social issues into account.

It’s just not fair

The immediate reaction to the state of the rail network in the North is that it underperforms compared to the rest of Britain, particularly London and the South East. Cries of “It is not fair!” abound. This is probably true, but in itself, does not form an argument for huge investment in the North’s Rail network.

It worked for London

Any investment case must be based on opportunity, and in railway terms, can investment in a fit for purpose rail network assist with addressing such opportunity? The Greater London Authority was formed in 2000 and was required to develop a long term strategic plan to grow the region in terms of its economy and population, as well as addressing issues of social inclusion and the environment. It soon became evident that transport was potentially part of the solution rather than simply a cost burden on the region. Transport for London was set up to address this leading to massive rail projects such as the London Overground, Thameslink 2000 and Crossrail, with varying degrees of interest from National Government. The business case for all these projects was based on these wider criteria, particularly benefits to the regional and national economy and social inclusion (the ability to travel to work to sustain the city).

National government recognised these as national projects as they improved the national economy in addition to the regional economy. This argument can and should apply elsewhere.

It also worked in Scotland

Scotland has devolved government too and a transport organisation - Transport Scotland, set up in 2006. At this time there was much discussion with Transport for London regarding the part rail development can play in the economy and how it should be organised. In Scotland, this meant trading in the Strathclyde Passenger Transport Executive, which managed local passenger rail services around Glasgow quite well, for a pan Scotland organisation -Transport Scotland, far more akin to what needs to be fully operational in the North of England. Scotland has a head start.

Two strategic concepts were applied to rail in Scotland. The first one is the need for a strategic regional network within Scotland – the Seven Cities Inter City network enshrined in the Scotrail franchise, serving a combined population of 3 million. The second one was the approach to the Central Belt investment in electrification and new services. This treated Glasgow and Edinburgh and the catchment area of both cities and the Central Belt in between as a single economic region requiring far better rail services from the whole of the Central Belt to both Glasgow and Edinburgh. The result from 2019 is no less than five electrified routes between the two cities, serving a wide area of the Central Belt. The read across to the Manchester to Leeds routes with no electrified connection in 2019 is in stark contrast.

A Northern Central Belt equivalent

Any blueprint for the North must learn from these successes, bringing benefits to the whole region by treating the many important cities as a single economic region in a similar way to the Scottish approach. Railfuture’s Rail Blueprint for the North sees the cities of Chester, Liverpool, Preston, Manchester, Sheffield, Bradford, Leeds and Hull as a single sub region with a large economy and a combined population of 7 million, justifying a similar approach with a huge improvement in rail capacity. Such an approach also forms a basis for a much enhanced regional service serving the wider Northern Region including North Yorkshire (Doncaster and York), Teesside, Tyneside and Cumbria, with a combined population over 9 million, more than three times that covered by Scotland’s Seven Cities network. The key to both these components is investment in the central core ie Liverpool – Manchester – Bradford/Sheffield/Leeds – Hull/York.

Doesn’t the Trans-Pennine franchise and the Northern Connect element of the new Northern franchise do this?

The Trans-Pennine franchise is based on providing just this, as should the concept of Northern Connect for slightly lower volume routes. In the case of the North there are many smaller but important towns that need similar treatment, so the Northern Connect concept is important right across the region including the planned Teesside–Newcastle–Carlisle “Connect” service. New direct services are also required, some extending outside the region eg Leeds – Leicester. All of these would benefit from being viewed and planned as a single regional service managed as a single operation separate from Northern’s local service with the current conflict of priorities where evidently “Connect” is the loser when compared with Trans Pennine Express and in terms of Northern’s priorities for introduction. The economy cannot afford this conflict. Local services should necessarily respond to local and city needs, with different governance, and far more sponsor control of integrated local fares.

The reason why this, as it stands, will not work is the lack of infrastructure to achieve such ambition. This applies both to core stations and core routes.

Without investment in capacity at, and on the approaches to the core stations in Manchester (Piccadilly, Oxford Road and Victoria) and Leeds even current investment is unlikely to make much difference. All four of these are creaking under the weight of the existing services without the growth projected in any blue print. The approach to Sheffield at Dore is also constrained – the bite will come with HS2. Expansion and development of light rail solutions, for example in Manchester and Leeds, can also release capacity at city centre stations.

Similarly the core section routes are woefully inadequate, both in terms of speed and capacity constraints. No proposal is likely to be viable, with or without HS3, unless it provides high capacity corridors between Manchester, Bradford, Leeds and Sheffield and between Sheffield and Leeds/York. Low line speeds mean that journey times are extended, which makes it more difficult to achieve modal shift. Electrification, both overhead and alternative technologies, is needed to increase capacity, meet environmental targets and achieve attractive journey times over the gradients of the Pennines.

It is clear that even now, several sections of route cannot support a satisfactory service where established local services have had to be adjusted to accommodate longer distance services more reliably, largely to the detriment of local services. Routes where the current service is already sub-optimised include Manchester to Huddersfield, Huddersfield to Leeds, Leeds to York, Manchester to Sheffield, Manchester to Manchester Airport and Altrincham to Manchester, as well as the notorious section from Manchester Piccadilly to Oxford Road, Salford and Victoria. Capacity could be released on the latter section between Manchester Piccadilly, Oxford Road, Salford and Victoria by building western access to Manchester Airport and by creating an alternative route for freight to access Trafford Park from the west.
Photo by mattbuck (category), CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

The approach to Manchester Piccadilly station – photo by mattbuck, <cc 2.0="" by-sa="" creativecommons.org="" licenses="">, via Wikimedia Commons

There are other potentially core routes where there is latent capacity but the infrastructure and train service is not fit for purpose, such as the direct route from Sheffield to York with 2 trains a day each way, none at peak hours. One wonders what is in the minds of those specifying a franchise devouring public subsidy with this level of service on a route serving important intermediate towns such as Pontefract – a realistic level of service should attract traffic and so reduce subsidy..

In fact the whole service plan is conditioned around the infrastructure and the most recent attempt to plan on this basis failed (see Murder on the Thameslink - Northern Express), so more recent changes to improve reliability have already seen a move to scale down growth ambitions in addition to deferring planned changes.

Does High Speed 3 help?

Rrailfuture sees HS3 like it advocates the development of HS2. Railfuture sees HS2 (from London to the North) as providing additional capacity and resilience to the rail network provided it is properly integrated into the existing network, so potentially providing economic and transport benefits to the whole region. HS3 should be evaluated as part of the solution in addressing the core route issues described alongside capacity enhancements on all three key core corridors (ie Manchester to Leeds via Bradford, Huddersfield and to Sheffield via the Hope Valley). Better routes such as between Sheffield and York or route reopening such as the Woodhead route (Manchester to Sheffield and Barnsley) should also be evaluated in the same way. What is clear is that the result should emerge from journey time targets (eg Manchester – Sheffield in 30 minutes) and demand increases as discussed later and that benefits should accrue across the region including west of Manchester and north and east of Leeds and Sheffield. The optimum solution for the whole region is unlikely to emerge by starting with placing an HS3 route assumption on the map.


Aside from mainly intermodal freight mainly using the West Coast route to Scotland, there are several categories of rail freight service that contribute strongly to the economy and the environment in the North. Most of these are subject to congestion particularly around Manchester, for example intermodal trains to Trafford Park that have to share the route though Manchester Piccadilly and Oxford Road, tying up valuable capacity.

Adding a western access route from Trafford Park taking freight trains via a new short link to the Chat Moss line, then to the West Coast Main Line via Newton-le-Willows would free 4 paths per hour at Piccadilly platforms 13/14, something that its doubtful digital signalling will achieve. This would be a new piece of infrastructure, but could be achieved quite easily by adding a third line to the planned formation of HS2 Northern link that passes Culceth. This approach would offer more certainty of additional capacity than digital signalling and cost less than adding more tracks between Deansgate/Oxford Road and Piccadilly.

There are considerable West to East flows including biomass imported via Liverpool Docks routed over the Pennines to the Drax Power Station. These have contorted and hence unproductive routings around Manchester and over the Pennines owing to lack of capacity and congestion. Similarly heavy construction flows from Buxton to the Greater Manchester area, Yorkshire and the south all suffer from the inefficiency of poor, roundabout routing and hence competitive disadvantage. This latter will only be partially mitigated by the Hope Valley capacity project.

There is a specific requirement for a viable freight route across Manchester but generally the development of freight using rail is hampered by largely the same capacity constraints on the core routes from Manchester to Yorkshire and Sheffield. Gauging constraints also hinder some freight flows, for example gauge enhancement is needed for container traffic between Northallerton and Eaglescliffe to facilitate rail freight flows to Teesport. This suggests that future demand for freight based upon competitive journey times should be a core component of the Blueprint exercise and properly integrated into the core capacity plan.

Railfuture’s Blueprint for the North contends that it is difficult to contemplate any meaningful increased contribution to the North’s evolving economy and environment that rail can play, even in realising the benefits of current rolling stock investment and services unless investment in core routes and core stations is addressed.

The Northern Powerhouse

The political debate dubbed the "Northern Powerhouse" recognises that the economies of northern cities and towns are as strong as in London or Scotland if treated as an entity. Treating them as an entity means dramatically improved transport links. Just recognising this fact is an extremely important step along the road to putting in proper governance to oversee strategic investment in the North’s rail network. Railfuture has welcomed the Northern Powerhouse but contends that any “powerhouse” needs to be connected and switched on. This investment will benefit the environment as well as the economy by achieving the modal shift that is needed to avoid climate change – see our article on the UN Climate Change report.

As part of Railfuture’s contribution to the Northern Powerhouse debate, Railfuture northern branchesNorth West, North East and Yorkshire - have tabled the individual rail development schemes that they, in conjunction with stakeholders, are campaigning for, including new links into to rail network such as adding Skelmersdale (Lancashire) and Ashington, Bedlington, Newsham (Northumbria). These campaigns include increasing the connectivity of the network with restored links such as Burnley and Colne to Skipton, similar to the successful campaign to restore the link between Runcorn and Chester (completed but no trains are available to run on the route as yet).

Such developments become far more sustainable in the context of a blueprint to provide a systematic increase in the capacity and resilience of the North’s rail network.

Transport for the North

Transport for the North as a concept has been around for some time but was only set up in April 2018 (in legislative terms) as Statutory Partner to the Department of Transport, Highways England and Network Rail with the stated aim of ensuring that the North’s strategic transport priorities are developed and delivered.

Clearly this is the right thing to do, particularly if its objectives are properly set in the economic context of what rail development can contribute to the North.

Railfuture, in terms of a Rail Blueprint, contends that such an initiative must be welcomed but it must, like Transport for Scotland and London, be equipped with a strong sponsor client side capable of not only strategic planning through “partnerships” but directly overseeing rail development in the north, which requires the funds to go with it to be vested with Transport for the North for:

  1. Rail infrastructure upgrades including what goes in Network Rail’s Rail Network Enhancements Pipeline
  2. A Regional Express Franchise (Amalgamating Trans Pennine Express and Northern Connect) to serve the whole region
  3. A Northern Concession for urban and local rail services, based on the London Overground model whereby Transport for the North specifies service level and quality and fares and provides suitable trains.

The Integrated Transport Authorities

Up until the Local Transport Act 2008 there were six Passenger Transport Authorities, four of which served the Northern Region. These are Greater Manchester (Transport for Greater Manchester), Liverpool city Region Merseyside Passenger Transport Executive (branded as Merseytravel), South Yorkshire (branded as Travel South Yorkshire), Tyne and Wear (branded as Nexus) and West Yorkshire (branded as Metro).

These organisations evolved into Integrated Transport Authorities (ITAs) starting with Greater Manchester in 2011, followed by the remainder. The ITAs have greater responsibilities including subsidising bus services and provision of bus infrastructure and three are directly involved in the provision of rail services: Merseytravel (Merseyrail), Greater Manchester (Manchester Metro) and Nexus (Tyne and Wear Metro).

We need to recognise that journeys are from door to door and not from station to station. It is important that ITAs are able to specify interconnection between rail and other public transport, in respect of timetables, ticketing and real-time information.

Railfuture’s blueprint does not involve changing the ITAs as was done in Scotland by abolition of Strathclyde PTE in Glasgow, particularly as the transport integration role is so critical at city level. Nor do we propose merging the TPE and Northern franchise to replicate Scotland’s single franchise model. The three direct rail operations (Merseyrail, Metrolink and Nexus) should continue under direct ITA control.

The proposed management structure is:

  1. The proposed Regional Express Franchise contract, should be let and held by the Department for Transport (DfT) in conjunction with Transport for the North. Day to day oversight of the contract would be by Transport for the North
  2. The Northern Concession contract should be let by Transport for the North in conjunction with the ITAs taking an active part in specifying rail services and integrating them with other transport modes, including light rail services and bus interchanges. This includes fares integration with light rail and metro, where, for example in Greater Manchester, National Rail and Metrolink services should be integrated, similarly on Tyneside.

This puts decision making and risk management where the issues are best understood.

The Blueprint challenge

The rail industry received £19bn in 2016/17, new figures will be issued for 2017/18 at the end of January 2019. £9.5bn came from passenger income, the remainder from government grants to the train operators via the franchise contracts or to Network Rail who levy access charges for the use and upkeep of the network. The most costly franchise in England in cost recovery terms was Northern which received funding of £284m. South West Trains (now South Western Railway) in London and South West England by contrast paid the government £366m. Net government funding for Northern as a percentage of revenue was 57%, the highest in Britain, higher than Scotland or Wales despite the huge rural areas there.

Double or quit?

These figures are so extreme that a double or quit conclusion is soon reached. A rail only franchise balance sheet points toward quit. This led to the cost minimisation strategy adopted by British Rail providing Pacer, bus style trains and basic stations with little concern about growing revenue. Most positive initiatives came from the PTEs who saw marginal improvements to the rail network and services as bringing benefits in addressing economic and social objectives. Where this was done well such as in Airedale/Wharfedale, the effect on ridership and economic contribution to West Yorkshire has been dramatic.

The quit option is not politically, environmentally or economically sustainable, suggesting that the direction of travel via ITAs to a fully functioning Transport for the North is the right one as improving these rail services purely in terms of the rail cost/revenue is potentially a more difficult task than anywhere else in the country.

In Britain generally, passenger journeys have doubled in the past 15 years. If a structure had been put in place to accommodate this at the time, the rail network in the North would not have collapsed when attempts were made to specify improved service through the franchise process without proper attention to the capacity and resilience of the infrastructure.

Railfuture’s view is that a Rail Blueprint is required for a further doubling of journeys over the next 15 years, expressed in infrastructure investment terms through the Rail Network Enhancements Pipeline and Market-Led Proposals. Implementing small incremental schemes has not helped.

Growth has continued, so it is only a matter of time until such a step change in rail capacity ie a 100% increase over the core sections is required.

The key test for the rail response is whether a doubling of the business, involving large strategic infrastructure investment, can be achieved without a doubling of operational costs. Experience in other areas, particularly in London and the South East suggests that it can with good governance as proposed in the Rail Blueprint.

Railfuture’s Rail Blueprint for the North provides the economic context, the regional governance and service franchise and concession proposals, together with Network Rail oversight via the established Network Rail funding structures, to achieve this. The Railfuture branches in the North will be responding to this initial strategy with a coordinated action plan for particular topics on how our railways in the north can meet this challenge in terms of a growing railway, more accountable to the North, fulfilling its transportation, economic and environmental potential.

Northern Powerhouse

Murder on the Thameslink - Northern Express

UN Climate Change report