The UK government has published its long-awaited Integrated Rail Plan for the North and Midlands, pledging to overhaul and modernise neglected parts of England’s rail network – but does it go far enough?
The Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) sets out £96 billion of public investment in high-speed links and local railways to and between the East and West Midlands, Yorkshire and the North West.
However, the decision to cancel the Eastern leg of High Speed 2 (HS2), which would have connected Leeds and Birmingham, will come as a blow to many people, businesses and leaders across the region.
Nor does the plan include the anticipated new high-speed Transpennine route between Leeds and Manchester via Bradford, which is a key component of Transport for the North’s Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) project.
What will the Integrated Rail Plan deliver?
Instead of the Eastern leg of HS2, a shorter high-speed line will be built between Birmingham and East Midlands Parkway. HS2 trains can then continue directly to Nottingham, Derby, Chesterfield, and Sheffield on the Midland Main Line, which the IRP will see fully upgraded and electrified.
However, the plan only commits to looking further into the most effective way of running HS2 trains to Leeds.
Meanwhile, the existing Transpennine Main Line connecting York, Leeds and Manchester will be fully upgraded and electrified and a new high-speed section built from Warrington, via Manchester to the Standedge area in Yorkshire.
The plan also includes proposals to upgrade and speed up the East Coast Mainline and sets out improvements to local services, including £200m to commence work on the new West Yorkshire Mass Transit System.
There will also be £360m to introduce London-style contactless ticketing across commuter rail networks, including price-capped integrated ticketing with local buses and trams.
Too little, or a step in the right direction?
ICE has long argued for improved connectivity and transport capacity in the Midlands and the North. Investing in faster, more reliable public transport is essential for delivering both levelling-up and net zero.
The investment announced today is significant, although not all of it is new. The government has also listened to the National Infrastructure Commission’s advice to take an adaptive approach to investment to ensure better value for money for the taxpayer.
The government pledges that the IRP will deliver the benefits – shorter journey times, more capacity, and more affordable prices – needed to improve quality of life and unlock productivity and economic growth in the North and Midlands.
It says its plan accelerates levelling-up by focusing on incremental improvements and bringing forward vital work which, under the original HS2 and NPR proposals, would not have delivered benefits until the mid-2040s.
Under IRP, electrification will also decarbonise more than 75% of Britain’s main trunk routes and significant volumes of passengers and freight will be taken off Britain’s roads. Given that transportation is responsible for around 40% of emissions in the UK, delivering on these pledges is vital for achieving net zero.
However, by trading off fast strategic national rail links and high-quality local ones against one another and prioritising short-term fixes and cost-savings, there is a risk that the plan will fail to meet future demand and deliver the social, environmental and economic outcomes promised under previous HS2 and NPR proposals.
There is no doubt that the schemes announced today are needed, but at best the IRP can be seen as a step in the right direction, while keeping a range of longer-term options open – provided no additional time is lost and plans are turned quickly into action.
What needs to happen next?
Given the delays in reaching this point, it is crucial that the coming years focus on making progress, but none of the significant projects announced are planned to start until at least 2025.
The IRP provides a direction of travel for local communities, investors and the rail and construction industries, but more detail is needed about next steps – a delivery plan should be published within the next 12 months.
Much of the background work to enable the schemes announced today has already been done in detail. The government should use this existing work and commit to development costs and delivery in Control Period 7, planning for which starts next year.
The government also needs to provide more detail about how transport investment will contribute to levelling-up, including detailed outcomes and measures of success for levelling-up against which transport projects can be assessed.