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Is it time to rethink the UK's Integrated Rail Plan?

29 July 2022

A new report says lack of evidence and wishful thinking are risking the vision behind the £96 billion investment. 

Is it time to rethink the UK's Integrated Rail Plan?
The Transport Committee raised concerns over a lack of focus on station infrastructure. Image credit: Dk.J/Shutterstock

A new report from the Transport Committee welcomes the scale of investment outlined in the Integrated Rail Plan for the North and Midlands (IRP).

It says the strategy has the potential to transform rail travel for future generations.

However, it calls for more transparency about the rationale behind key decisions, such as scrapping the eastern leg of High Speed 2 (HS2).

It says the government should reassess the evidence and be prepared to change course if other options offer better value and outcomes.

Does too much rest on a best-case scenario?

If all goes to plan, the committee accepts that the IRP will deliver better rail services in the Midlands and the North much earlier than previous options.

However, the report suggests this is based on a ‘best-case scenario’ that may never happen.

In this scenario, the individual schemes are completed on time and budget while minimising disruption - always a challenge with major infrastructure projects.

As published, the IRP lacks detail in key areas – an issue ICE highlighted in our submission to the inquiry.

These gaps include realistic time and cost ranges, contingencies for labour and materials shortages, and information on how freight fits into the IRP.

The committee has called for the government to produce more cautious estimates for the benefits that are realistically achievable.

The ICE and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Infrastructure (APPGI) have also launched a consultation to help reduce the uncertainty around how the plan will be delivered.

Will the IRP deliver transformational change?

Even under the best-case scenario, the Transport Committee questions whether the expected benefits are too modest for the transformational change that is needed in rail services.

The original purpose of Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) was to connect ‘the great cities of the North and enable them to grow’.

Better public transport is now a key component of the government’s levelling up agenda.

However, the report casts doubt on some of the government’s claims about how these benefits will be achieved.

Journey time reduction is the primary metric for measuring the IRP’s success.

But this overshadows the need to increase capacity and ensure high-speed rail operates as a system alongside freight and local services.

Evidence put to the committee suggested that track improvements enabling more frequent and faster high-speed trains may result in fewer stopping services being able to run.

This would undermine the IRP’s aim to enhance regional and local services.

Experts also questioned how achievable some of the proposed journey time improvements are, given the focus on upgrading existing track ahead of building new lines.

In response, the committee has asked the government to publish its full technical appraisal.

A lack of transparency over key decisions

The report also expresses concerns about the IRP’s business case.

The government is yet to publish its analysis of the wider economic impacts of the different NPR options or the rationale for cancelling the eastern leg of HS2.

This includes evidence of how different options would contribute to levelling up.

The fact the IRP was published without benefit-cost ratios raises questions over whether those plans have been properly assessed.

It also means that the value for money and economic return cannot be compared and validated.

The committee has asked the government to publish the full and updated benefit-cost ratios by March 2023.

It says the evidence base should be reconsidered in light of the levelling up agenda.

In doing so, the government should remain open to the possibility that other options for NPR could represent the best potential value and be prepared to change course.

Key decisions delayed

While the government has pledged to look at how best to take HS2 services to Leeds, the committee says the promised study on how to do so is needed urgently.

It calls for a timetable for the study to be published by September 2022.

The committee also raises concerns about other decisions, including the cancellation of the Golborne link and a lack of focus on station infrastructure.

Addressing capacity has primarily been seen through the lens of track improvements.

However, the report argues that many hub stations across the North and Midlands need either redevelopment or entirely new assets.

It says the benefits of new station infrastructure and their impacts on levelling up should also be reconsidered.

Other requests put forward to the government include:

  • a full independent assessment of the seat and track capacity offered by the IRP compared to other plans,
  • a rail freight strategy, including a detailed assessment of how the IRP will increase capacity for rail freight, and
  • a timetable for implementing a mitigation strategy to minimise disruption caused by delivering the IRP.

ICE’s view

The Transport Committee’s report reaffirms that the theory behind the IRP is sound.

At £96 billion, it sets out a substantial pipeline of investment that, if all goes to plan, should provide better rail services in the Midlands and the North faster than previous options.

However, as the report highlights, the underlying evidence to back up whether these plans will be delivered on time and on budget, and crucially, with the right outcomes, is absent.

This is why the ICE and APPGI consultation is seeking evidence on how delivery of the IRP can be accelerated, and what principles are needed to guide decisions on investment.

Getting the IRP right is vital – not just for the North and Midlands, but the entire country.

Public transport has a key role to play in achieving the UK’s long-term national objectives, notably rebalancing the economy and transitioning to net zero.

There's little time to lose in delivering the major strategic infrastructure projects needed to achieve those goals.

If you would like to respond to the APPGI/ICE consultation please contact the ICE policy team.

Read the APPGI and ICE Green Paper on accelerating delivery of the IRP

  • David McNaught, policy manager at ICE