Network Rail engineering train and workers in orange suits

All we want for Christmas is…clarity on the UK Integrated Rail Plan

Network Rail work at Leeds Railway Station, Christmas Day and Boxing Day 2019Image Network Rail media centre

The railway industry in the UK is still asking for clarity on the Integrated Rail Plan for the North and Midlands. It is just over a year since the government published their vision for the future of the network in the regions, but the representative body, the Railway Industry Association says that vision is still cloudy, and it’s long overdue a measure of clarity.

There was a wide welcome for the publication of the Integrated Rail Plan last November (2021), which provided confirmation on funding for a number of significant projects in the North and Midlands of England. However, since then, there has been silence on the specifics, and the industry supply chain says it needs further certainty on the scope of IRP projects and specific timescales. Any such clarity would be a welcome Christmas present, but there are scant expectations of a gift wrapped surprise from Westminster this festive season.

High-profile developments sooner not later

The Integrated Rail Plan sets out a UK government programme of proposals, that their Department for Transport say will transform the rail network in the North and Midlands. The DfT document outlines an impressive 96 billion pound (around 118 billion euro) plan for major rail projects, including their high-profile developments for HS2 Phase 2b, Northern Powerhouse Rail and Midlands Rail Hub. “[These plans] will be delivered sooner than previous plans so that communities, towns and cities across the North and Midlands are better connected with more frequent, reliable and greener services and faster journey times”, says the foreword.

Cover of the UK government Integrated Rail Plan document with various pictures of railways in the north of England including Liverpool Lime Street station
Oh, yes, there is actually a freight train on the cover (image Department for transport)

However, the plan is scant on specifics, and that doesn’t offer much seasonal cheer for the many businesses that would be contracted to deliver these wide-ranging projects. “Providing clarity isn’t just important to the supply sector”, says the Railway Industry Association. “It is also key to the core motivation behind the IRP, delivering customer benefits as quickly and efficiently as possible to support the levelling up of the country”.

Still awaiting further details

In the UK government’s Autumn Statement (budget) confirmed that key major rail projects, including the HS2 high speed rail line between London, Birmingham and the West Coast Main Line, would go ahead. Also included was what the government called the “core” Northern Powerhouse Rail project – which falls short of a desired high speed line across the north of England. Work will also continue on East West Rail, a project to reconnect Oxford and Cambridge – although that line has been criticised for lack of electrification and scant provision for freight capacity. Nevertheless, the industry gives some credit where due. “This is positive news”, says the RIA. “However, a year on from publication of the Integrated Rail Plan [we are] are still awaiting further details of the specific schemes, and remain in the dark about likely scope and timescales.”

There is considerable discomfort with what the industry says has been the “ever-changing” scope of Northern Powerhouse Rail. That has had consequential impacts on the wider IRP plans. When NPR was first mooted, the intention was for a brand new dedicated high speed line to connect at least a core section between Manchester and Leeds, with possible further new lines to York and Hull. That plan has however been dropped entirely, and what was to be a complimentary programme of upgrades to the existing Transpennine Route has become the core of the improvements in the north. It’s a bit like a big box under the Christmas tree, only to find a rather smaller present within. Not quite the Christmas clarity hoped for.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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