UK mega project Northern Powerhouse Rail back on track?
A project to connect major cities in the north of England with a dedicated high-speed railway, vastly increasing capacity for freight and passenger traffic, could be back on the agenda, but only if members of the Conservative Party vote for the right leader. That is the intriguing – or preposterous – state of affairs, depending on your political point of view. One of the two final candidates to take over from deposed prime minister Boris Johnson has put their weight behind reviving the project to build a brand new line connecting Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Hull.
Liz Truss, one of two candidates for the leadership of the ruling Conservative Party, told a meeting of party members in Leeds that she would revive the Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) high-speed project, which was spectacularly dumped by her own party just a matter of months ago.
The project, which would radically improve connections between northern cities, was abandoned at the same time as the HS2 Eastern Leg, which would have connected Leeds, Sheffield and the East Midlands directly to the high-speed line currently under construction between London and Birmingham, and eventually Manchester.
The great rail betrayal
There was outcry when the outgoing Conservative Party leader and prime minister Boris Johnson cancelled the Northern Powerhouse Rail project and the HS2 Eastern Leg at the end of 2021, as part of a series of cost-saving measures. What was dubbed the great rail betrayal was mocked as a complete reversal of his government’s “Levelling Up” agenda – a policy of encouraging economic development in the areas of the country outwith the prosperous London and the south east of England.
Critics warned that the swathe of parliamentary seats won by the Conservative Party, in the traditionally socialist-voting north of England would be lost in the next general election. That danger of the “Red Wall” collapsing has not been lost on Liz Truss, the favourite to replace Johnson.
Lately, the cross-party Transport Select Committee has castigated the government for pulling the plug on the project without, what it says, was sufficient investigation of the business case. That appears to have hit home with Truss. “We will build the Northern Powerhouse Rail to link up communities and unlock potential across the North”, she told an open hustings meeting in Leeds. “That’s how we will bring better jobs to the North and address productivity.” Truss was debating the leadership contest with her rival, Rishi Sunak, the former chancellor, who, ostensibly held the purse strings on the NPR cancellation.
Questions asked of government arithmetic
At the time of the November cancellation of the NPR project, the government claimed that much of the 24.9 billion-pound (30 billion euro) budget would instead be directed into upgrading the existing network in the region. However, critics, including prominent civic leaders, have argued that the upgrades were already planned and were much needed in addition to the dedicated NPR route. They say that local, regional and freight services needed the capacity freed up by a new inter-urban NPR line. Put in context, the announcement last week by transport secretary Grant Shapps, that the budget for the upgrade works was to be increased three-fold to around nine billion pounds (10.75 billion euro) has been met with derision.
Twenty-five billion out, ten billion in. In the somewhat questionable accounting of the Depatment for Transport, represents a trebling of budget for rail development in the north of England. The arithmetic reflects a criticised tendency for the UK government to ‘re-announce’ investment plans. Nevertheless, the scaled-back NPR formed the backbone of the integrated Rail Plan, a government policy document which also proposed to spend a remarkable 100 million pounds (120 million euro) “to look at how best to take HS2 trains to Leeds, including assessing capacity at Leeds station and starting work on the West Yorkshire mass transit system.”
Actually, NPR was already back on the tracks
Network Rail, the government controlled infrastructure agency, may well be scratching its corporate head right now. They have already committed to what is possibly the biggest upgrade project in their history. Only last month, Network Rail proudly laid out their plans for the Transpennine Route Upgrade (TRU) – a project already underway, largely between Manchester and Leeds. That project will categorically increase capacity, with freight a major benefactor, says NR. It will deliver shorter journey times on the core section of the original NPR project, but will fall short of the high-speed connection originally promised.
Freight development is however not as well served by the upgrade. Bottlenecks – including the notorious Castlefield Corridor in Manchester – will not be remedied by any new tracks (although the commissioning of Manchester’s new signalling centre will be welcomed). Liz Truss has taken the opportunity to turn the signals to at least amber on NPR. However, it was her outspoken party colleague – Ben Houchen, the Conservative mayor for Tees Valley – who pointed out that she had already committed to this a week before the hustings in Leeds … at the same time as her rival Rishi Sunak had made exactly the same commitment.