Having had chance to read the Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) in full it’s easy to understand why the Government was seemingly so nervous about publishing it; initially intended for release in December 2020, it finally saw the light of day last Thursday – 18th November 2021 – some 11 months late.
In fairness, the Covid pandemic probably necessitated some aspects of the proposals to be reconsidered, as train-use dropped to between 4% and 6% of pre-pandemic levels during the first lockdown, and none of us could be sure of what the future might hold for working, commuting and travelling more generally.
That being said, many of the headlines flowing from the IRP have been poorly kept secrets for a good number of months and, in my opinion, it’s hard to disagree with the analysis provided by Huw Merriman, the Conservative chairman of the Commons Transport select committee, when he accused Government of "selling perpetual sunlight" but delivering "moonlight" instead.
The one region where an exception applies is the Midlands – I’ll explain why in a moment - but further north the proposals and commitments incorporated in the IRP are far diluted from the promises that HS2 would be built out in full (a commitment reconfirmed as recently as May of this year by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, by the way) and Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) would consist of an entirely new-build high-speed line between Leeds and Manchester, delivering significant residual benefits to cities between Liverpool and Hull, as well as Sheffield and Newcastle.
As someone who was born and raised near Hull, studied and worked in Liverpool, spent close to a decade in London and approaching the same length of time in the West Midlands, with a son studying in Leeds, I feel reasonably well placed to provide a critical assessment of the IRP. The fact I’ve worked on various light and heavy rail projects over the years probably helps too – including two earlier iterations of the now-promised West Yorkshire Mass Transit scheme, elements of the TransPennine Upgrade project and various proposals to close level crossings on the East Coast Main Line, most of which were filed in the ‘too difficult and expensive’ box almost a decade ago, but which now seem critical to the IRP’s commitment to increase journey times between London and cities such as Sheffield, Leeds, Newcastle and Edinburgh.
And talking of journey times, perhaps the most striking aspect of the IRP from my perspective is its very clear focus on speed of passenger services – journey times are mentioned on over half of the pages. But compare that with what the Government continues to state is one of the three main benefits of HS2 (none of which are speed, by the way!): ‘increasing capacity for freight by taking inter-city trains off the existing rail network’, then it’s hard to comprehend the rationale for scrapping* the eastern leg of HS2 between the East Midlands and Leeds in favour of using the existing Midland Main Line. It’s great that the existing Midland Main Line is being upgraded and electrified, but how does that release capacity for more freight?
[*Whilst the headlines tell us the Eastern leg has been scrapped, the IRP “provides £100m to look at the most effective way to run HS2 trains to Leeds” and, of huge concern for landowners, “safeguarding of the previously proposed high-speed route north of East Midlands Parkway will remain in place pending conclusion of this work”].
The same question can be asked in relation to NPR, which has been down-graded from the previously anticipated new-build high-speed line between Liverpool and Leeds to something that will use existing lines for large sections – achieving reductions in journey times and increased capacity for passengers, but with a much-reduced ability to increase capacity for freight.
All of this begs the question whether the IRP will deliver the environmental benefits that had been expected either. Increasing capacity for freight was always heralded as a key environmental benefit of HS2, noting how many lorries it would take off the highway network, but the newly released proposals incorporate much-reduced benefits in that regard. The fact only one page of the 164-page IRP is dedicated to freight probably tells its own story.
Benefits for the north-west
The IRP’s confirmation that the western leg of HS2 would be built out in full, with new stations to be built at Manchester Airport and Manchester Piccadilly was not new news, but it is nevertheless great news for the north-west.
Added to that, although the IRP has confirmed that NPR will not deliver an entirely new build high-speed line linking Liverpool and Leeds via Manchester and Bradford as had been hoped, it does commit to a new high-speed line between Warrington and Manchester which will encroach sufficiently far west to enable Government to claim it also serves Yorkshire (the new line will run to Standedge, around one mile into the White Rose county, but over 20 miles west of Leeds).
The IRP explains that the selected NPR option (known as Option 1) will cost £22bn, whereas the other two options (which provided for a new line all the way between Liverpool and Leeds but with different options at Warrington and Bradford) would have cost £31bn and £36bn respectively ‘but the options would deliver similar journey times’.
Interestingly the IRP also provides the following paragraph, which will no doubt be seized upon by opposers to the scheme in due course, especially if the estimated cost increases as it inevitably will:
“Of the three options, all were low to poor value for money. Option 1 had the strongest business case, but even it had only a marginally positive benefit cost ratio, whereby under standard appraisal assumptions the infrastructure delivers more benefits than it costs to build. Rail schemes in the North are at increased risk of being considered poor value for money when applying conventional cost-benefit analysis. This is driven in part by smaller city populations in the North, different travel patterns, as well as the general high cost of building rail infrastructure. However, with recent reform to Green Book guidance, the Government has also considered the strategic intent of the schemes such as levelling up and net zero”.
The IRP explains that NPR trains will use fully electrified, expanded and upgraded conventional lines between Liverpool and Warrington, and from the east of Standedge tunnels to Leeds. All of this will eventually result in trains running from Manchester to Leeds in 33 minutes, 22 minutes faster than now, with seat capacity increasing by over 300%.
However, whilst the upgrades to existing lines (which is primarily electrification of sections of the TransPennine line) will be completed this decade, the IRP suggests that NPR will not be completed in full until the 2040s.
Yorkshire, the poor relation
It was no secret that the eastern leg of HS2 between East Midlands and Leeds was going to be scrapped, but the confirmation of that was still a significant blow to the Yorkshire region and north-east more generally.
Added to that the fact that NPR will not deliver more than a mile of new high-speed rail in the county, let alone a new station to serve Bradford or a new connection into Leeds, and the IPR can only be described as a huge disappointment for the region when it comes to inter-city connectivity and heavy rail more generally. The only real positive in that regard is that journey times will be cut between Leeds and Bradford to 12 minutes this decade, and between Leeds and Manchester to 33 minutes in a couple of decades time, but quite how that will significantly relieve the existing congestion on lines, platforms and stations is unclear to say the least.
There is the promise of improvements to the East Coast Main Line, including digital signalling and an upgraded power supply to allow longer and more frequent trains, as well improving the capacity of stations along the route and removing bottlenecks such as level crossings (although as alluded to above, we’ve been here before). However, all of that will only reduce journey times between Leeds and London by 20 minutes, whereas if HS2 had been built out in full that journey would have reduced by 52 minutes, and the lack of a new line means capacity for passenger and freight services will always be far more limited than would have been the case under the original HS2 proposals.
The good news for West Yorkshire is a firm commitment in the IRP to fund work on the new West Yorkshire Mass Transit System. The IRP commits Government “to support West Yorkshire Combined Authority over the longterm to ensure that this time, it gets done. That commitment begins now with more than £200m of immediate funding to plan the Mass Transit System and start building it, with the first services operational in the second half of this decade”.
I refer to Mass Transit as a consolation prize in the headline, and whilst I think that’s a fair description it’s nevertheless much-welcomed. Having worked on the Leeds Supertram proposals and the subsequent New Generation Transit proposals (electric trolleybuses, in case you wondered) earlier this century I’m delighted that there’s finally a firm commitment to ensure Leeds will no longer be the largest city in western Europe without light rail or a metro system.
There’s no doubt it will make a significant positive difference to connectivity across West Yorkshire, but one can’t get away from the fact that 85% of people travelling into Leeds Station come from further afield and without new heavy rail lines or a significant station upgrade, capacity is going to continue to be a major issue and, as a result, Leeds and the wider region will be looking over the Pennines with a significant degree of envy.
From Hull, Hell and Halifax good lord deliver us….but not by a decent rail service from the former
The train service in and out of Hull is truly shocking and I had hoped that the IRP might have included a commitment to do something about that. The city is stuck out on a limb, 60+ miles east of Leeds, and whilst it’s enjoying a spectacular renaissance as a key centre for the wind energy sector, I’m sad to say that Hull looks set to become yet more disconnected with other northern cities than is already the case, as the upgrades that even Leeds and Sheffield will benefit from will serve no benefit to my hometown.
The only glimmer of light I could find is the following paragraphs, which I have to say gives me little cause for comfort!
“The Government has identified a core pipeline of schemes and any further schemes (such as Hull upgrades) will be subject to affordability, delivering commitments on time and to budget, and complementary investments being made.”
How will IRP contribute towards net zero?
Given the current focus on the climate agenda, I was surprised to see relatively little in the IRP on this subject. As already mentioned, there is scant reference to how capacity for freight will be increased, although it does say that “the electrification and new lines in the IRP will mean that more than 75% of Britain's main trunk routes are decarbonised”, albeit that seems unlikely to happen until well into the 2040s.
The only other passage that relates to environmental benefits states:
“The plan will take significant volumes of passengers and freight away from petrol or diesel cars and trucks onto clean, electric trains. Better connectivity with local and regional services will allow more journeys to be made easily without a car”.
Just my opinion, but the document feels somewhat lacking in terms of how it relates to the environment.
How and when will it all happen?
The IRP explains that Government believes it will be preferable to legislate for the various new lines and upgrades through smaller, more focussed hybrid Bills. Oddly, it doesn’t mention Transport and Works Act Orders or Development Consent Orders, but I would expect at least some of the projects will be consented by the former, and possibly some by the latter too.
In terms of specifics, the IRP states that the Government intends to prepare three hybrid bills; one for the high-speed line from Crewe to Manchester (to be deposited in 2022), followed by one for a high-speed line connecting the West and East Midlands, and a later hybrid Bill for the section of NPR new line from Warrington to the HS2 line, and then Manchester to the TransPennine route (that sounds like two Bills for NPR, but we’ll see).
In terms of timeframes, the following is copied directly from the IRP, and I’m afraid it won’t leave you feeling overly positive that IRP will deliver many meaningful benefits in the short- to mid-term.