UK Network Rail chairman to review ‘union connectivity’

Sir Peter Hendy, the chairman of the infrastructure management agency Network Rail, has been appointed by the government in London to examine transport links between the four nations of the United Kingdom. Under the terms of reference, the Union Connectivity Review will explore ways to bring forward funding to accelerate cross-country and cross-border infrastructure projects. Freight operators are eager to learn if the review will recommend capacity enhancements which will provide new economic and business opportunities.

UK prime minister Boris Johnson made a summer statement to parliament, proposing to build what he called a stronger and fairer economy for the future. In his follow up, the prime minister has commissioned Sir Peter Hendy, the chair of Network Rail, to undertake a detailed review of how transport infrastructure can support economic growth and quality of life across the whole of the UK. Given Hendy’s background, there is expectation that the review will closely examine rail development, in answer to earlier government commitments to carbon reduction.

New rail infrastructure

Despite its green economy agenda, the government has been specific about a programme of road improvements, but less clear about rail development. Typically, the road works are maintenance and improvements to existing corridors, with some new build which concerns environmental lobbyists. However, Hendy’s review is expected to identify new corridors in all modes and, in the case of rail, recommend reinstating dismantled infrastructure. Grant Shapps, the UK transport secretary, said this was part of the economic recovery process from the coronavirus pandemic. “As the country begins the recovery, we need to get on the front foot and invest in infrastructure in every region to reignite the economy, helping with opportunities in the future.”

The review is to look at connectivity throughout the United Kingdom, which could mean Belfast in Northern Ireland coming under scrutiny (Fattonyni – WikiCommons)

In consultation with transport ministers in the Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and the UK department for transport in London, the Union Connectivity Review has been instructed to consider the quality and reliability of major connections across the UK. The review has been asked to pay particular attention to the wider UK fiscal strategy over the period covering the next twenty to thirty years. That timescale implies a direct reference to carbon reduction, further encouraging the rail freight sector.

Manchester and Beeching freight on the agenda

One welcome rail project announced was a ten million pound (11 million euros) development fund for Network Rail to work on unblocking the congested railways around Manchester. Sir Peter Hendy’s ‘day job’ will therefore be concentrating particularly on the notorious Castlefield corridor, which is widely regarded as the most pressing issue in the North of England. While actually solving issues like central Manchester will be very much more expensive than these already announced funds, the industry broadly welcomed news of the review.

Speculation extends to further significant projects which may come under the review spotlight. Overall network electrification will almost certainly be examined in detail, along with a raft of other connectivity challenges. The government’s recent ‘Reversing Beeching’ initiative – an invitation to communities to apply for reconnection to the national rail network – brought forward hundreds of applications for reinstated passenger services. Freight however was largely overlooked, and there is hope that the Union Connectivity Review will address that imbalance.

Port connections and a bridge to Ireland

Some commentators have already speculated that the review will be used as a further justification of the HS2 project, which it is claimed will provide much needed new capacity all around the network, particularly for freight movements. Other projects likely to be examined include cross-country routes that connect major ports with inland and urban distribution centres. Ports such as Felixstowe, and North of England landings like Teesport and the Humberside could be better connected with developing distribution centres in places like Mossend in Central Scotland and Port Salford in Greater Manchester. It is expected that routes to Ireland through the Welsh ports of Fishguard and Holyhead will also be examined.

It has been over two decades since rail played a part in the freight scene in Northern Ireland, when cross-border traffic was common, like this Republic of Ireland train hauling out of Belfast (Geograph)

Campaigners elsewhere in the UK are mobilising to address the review. The group backing the Borders Railway between Edinburgh in Scotland and Carlisle in England, already a recommended enhancement of the High Speed Rail Group, sees that as a target for the review. Prime minister Johnson has also expressed interest in another major project in the region. He has proposed a fixed link over the North Channel, which would connect Northern Ireland directly with Scotland and England, also via Carlisle. As grand schemes go, it is up there with the fixed links over the Oresund Strait and the Hong Kong – Macao bridge. If the 25-mile (40-kilometre) connection was realised, it could reintroduce rail freight to Northern Ireland, revitalise South West Scotland, and provide a new 100-mile (160-kilometre) rail link across three busy domestic UK borders.

Whether Sir Peter can bridge all the connectivity gaps in his review should be apparent soon. He has been asked to provide an interim report early next year, with his full review to be published in Summer 2021.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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