In its Rail Needs Assessment for the much-anticipated Integrated Rail Plan, the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) set an £86.2 billion 25-year rail enhancement budget for the Midlands and North. The NIC even suggested that government could – and perhaps should – increase this budget by 25%, making a total of £107.8 billion.
But what would rail enhancement budgets for the rest of England and for Wales look like if they were set on a similar basis?
This is the question that Greengauge 21 has set out to answer in its report “Setting Regional Budgets for Rail Investment”.
The NIC approach allocated the North and Midlands budget shares of the national total based on population levels. Greengauge 21 applied the same approach for the rest of the country and found that, while the population of the South and East of England plus Wales is greater than that of the North and Midlands (56% against 44%), the rail enhancement budget would be much lower: just £25 billion.
So why doesn’t the greater population level of the South and East generate an even larger budget allocation than the less populated North and Midlands?
The answer is that, before making its headcount-based computation, the NIC took into account the programme of prospective major rail enhancements visible in the ‘pipeline’. It found some very big projects for the North and Midlands, especially once the full cost of HS2 as well as Northern Powerhouse Rail is allocated there.
By way of contrast, the South and East have few rail enhancements in prospect. And by far the largest, Crossrail 2, has now been put on ice. According to the NIC, its budget is already largely re-allocated elsewhere, so is not available to be added to the enhancement budget for the South and East in the way that HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail budgets were added in for the North and Midlands.
There are some – smaller – budget add-ons for the South and East and Wales. The East-West Rail project is one; completion of the Great Western Electrification project is another. These add up to an estimated £6 billion, making an overall total of £25 billion. The way these funds would lie across the regions of the South & East and Wales is set out in the table below:
The allocation to London and its adjoining regions is modest by the standards of the last 20 years, during which time the Overground, Thameslink and Crossrail have been built. These projects, working together, will give the capital and the wider South East a tremendous post-COVID connectivity boost. But, looking ahead, Transport for London is going to need to look for smaller-scale investments on its part of the national rail system.
Across the country as a whole, it is clear that decarbonising the transport sector will drive a need for large-scale rail electrification. Electrification falls under the rail enhancement investment budget headings considered here.
New lines such as HS2 can make major contributions on this score, reducing long-haul road and short-haul air traffic, but substantial parts of the existing national rail network remain to be electrified too. London and the South East is well-placed on this score. While there are a few gaps, the rail system here is very largely already electrified.
The same cannot be said for the Midlands and North, and nor can it be said for South West England and Wales. These places would merit an equivalent 25% budget uplift over the values shown in the table, just as the North and the Midlands deserve, to overcome the weaknesses of unimproved networks and reliance on diesel-powered trains. The government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda must have a Wales and West component, as well as Midlands and North.
The way forward
Great British Railways will set out a lon- term strategy for the railways, as set out in the recent Shapps-Williams Review. It will need to demonstrate how its investment choices reflect national policy and respond to local and regional priorities.
Greengauge 21 Director Jim Steer said: “The sub-national transport bodies in England should be given a formal advisory role in setting rail investment priorities and budgets.
“We hope this piece of work will help identify a path to budget-setting, followed by careful assessments of the economic, social and environmental benefits of rail enhancement, region by region.”