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£96bn Integrated Rail Plan to deliver quicker journeys but HS2 to stop at East Midlands Parkway

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The UK Government has announced its long-awaited Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) that, it says, will see the biggest ever government investment in Britain’s rail network, with a £96 billion package of rail construction and upgrades for the Midlands and the North.

Revealed by Secretary of State Grant Shapps MP in the House of Commons, the new plan is intended to “transform both east–west and north–south links, building three new high-speed lines, improving rail services to and between the East and West Midlands, Yorkshire and the North West”.

It was a much-anticipated announcement, with speculation mounting that HS2’s leg to Leeds would be cancelled – as indeed it has been, replaced by upgrades to the conventional railway and three ‘new’ lines.

Those three new high-speed routes are not exactly new, however.  They are:

  • HS2 from Crewe to Manchester, with new stations at Manchester Airport and Manchester Piccadilly – this is HS2 phase 2b West which had already been confirmed.
  • A new high-speed line between Birmingham and East Midlands Parkway, after which trains will continue to central Nottingham, Derby and Sheffield on an upgraded and electrified Midland main line. This is a shortening of plans for HS2 phase 2b East, which would have continued to Leeds with a station at Toton in the East Midlands. Now the line will instead terminate at East Midlands Parkway, some five miles south of Toton, where it will connect with the existing Midland main line to run to Derby, Nottingham and Leicester and northwards to Chesterfield, Sheffield and Leeds.
  • Northern Powerhouse Rail – “a new high-speed line between Warrington, Manchester and Marsden in Yorkshire” – an option originally put forward by Transport for the North in 2019. However, this is not a high-speed line in the HS2 context (speeds of 200mph+) but is more likely to be around 125mph.

As well as the new high-speed lines, the IRP proposes the full electrification and upgrade of two ‘diesel’ main lines – the Midlands main line (currently electrified to Kettering with work taking place to extend this to Market Harborough) and the Transpennine main line, which is already the subject of a major upgrade programme.

In addition, the Secretary of State announced that the East Coast main line, which is fully electrified from London King’s Cross to Scotland, will also be upgraded with power improvements and digital signalling to slash journey times. This is not new – both programmes are already underway.

On a positive note, journey times will come down and these reductions will be delivered more quickly that was planned under HS2. However, the long-term benefit of a true high-speed line has been lost. The government predicts:

  • Northern Powerhouse Rail will connect Leeds and Manchester in 33 minutes, down from 55 minutes now.
  • HS2 East will run direct from central Nottingham to Birmingham in 26 minutes, down from 1 hour 14 minutes now, and from central Nottingham to London in 57 minutes. HS2 will also run from London to Sheffield in 1 hour 27 minutes.
  • HS2 West will run from London to Manchester in 1 hour 11 minutes and from Birmingham to Manchester in 41-51 minutes, compared to 86 minutes today.

At Leeds, which will no longer have a direct HS2 connection with London, the government is committing £200 million to start work on a new West Yorkshire mass transit system (Leeds metro) and has said that it will look at the most effective way to run HS2 trains to Leeds, including capacity at Leeds Station.

Making his announcement in the House of Commons on Thursday 18 November 2021, the Secretary of State also stressed that, under earlier plans, smaller towns on existing main lines such as Doncaster, Grantham, Huddersfield, Wakefield and Leicester would have seen little improvement, and in some cases even their services cut back. He stressed that the IRP will protect and improve these crucial links and will deliver improvements with far less disruption to local communities, and, on both local train lines and inter-city links, rail passengers will benefit from tangible changes, seeing more seats, shorter journeys, and more frequent and more reliable services.

The government’s plan is therefore to deliver improvements to routes journey times more quickly than would have happened if HS2 had been completed in full, with HS2 running to the East Midlands but no further north in the East.

REACTIONS

Industry observers across the political divide were quick to respond to the announcement.

Michelle Craven-Faulkner, Shoosmiths.

Michelle Craven-Faulkner, vice-chair of Rail Forum Midlands and partner and rail lead at law firm Shoosmiths, said:  “The eastern leg of HS2 was set to create new gateways to parts of the UK that are currently underserved by fast rail links, while also improving connectivity cross country between some of our major cities. The proposed infrastructure had one of the best economic cases of any part of the new high-speed rail network, supporting 74,000 new jobs and £4 billion in gross value added in the East Midlands alone.

“Improving the rail system isn’t just about the economic and social benefits, though. Rail travel has key environmental advantages. While the new plans will go some way to upgrading local transport links, scaling back high-speed rail will limit much needed connectivity and hinder the UK’s journey to net zero.

“Promoting a culture of rail travel is a noble aim. However, until its benefits are fully realised, and greater consideration is given to increasing capacity, reliability and speed, this will remain a dream, not a reality.”

Manuel Cortes, TSSA.

Manuel Cortes, TSSA general secretary, said: “This is not levelling up, it’s levelling down.

“The public won’t be fooled by Johnson’s lies and spin. He promised new rail lines and that’s not what is being delivered. He’s sold out the north with more broken promises and it’s our communities and climate that will pay the price.

“We should be making public transport more attractive. But there are fewer trains running, staff are already facing redundancies and now they’re saying the north will not be getting the improvements they promised.

“Today’s arguments about cost savings expose where the Tories’ priorities lie. We’ve just had COP26, with the government apparently committing to action on emissions. But, in the budget, they slashed air duty on short haul flights while hiking rail fares. They can find more money for airlines but when it come to our railways it’s all about cuts.

“The Tories are selling out our climate and our northern towns and cities. They’re building a new line for Oxford to Cambridge, but Bradford and Northern Powerhouse Rail loses out. This is a government that doesn’t care about climate, doesn’t care about the north and is happy to break promises and lie.”

Sir John Peace, Midlands Connect.

Sir John Peace, chair of Midlands Connect, said: “Today’s announcement gives businesses and local leaders the reassurance they’ve been waiting for – that HS2 is coming to the East Midlands.

“Although these plans are different in some respects to what we’d expected, there are a lot of positives in here and lots of things to be excited about – a new high-speed connection between Birmingham and East Midlands Parkway, direct links onto HS2 for Derby, Nottingham, and Chesterfield and a commitment to the Midlands Rail Hub.

“Now that we have certainty, we must focus our efforts on delivery. Our challenge to Government is simple, it should move as quickly as possible to get spades in the ground and bring benefits to local people sooner.”

Andy Bell, Ramboll UK.

Andy Bell, director at Ramboll in the UK, and chairman of the transport group at the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE), said: “Just 18 months ago, the Prime Minister told Parliament in a statement following the Oakervee review, that it ‘does not make any sense’ to build Northern Powerhouse Rail without HS2 and the government’s strategy was to do both ‘simultaneously’.

“Clearly, the pandemic has strained public finances since then, but another change of approach does not help an engineering sector scaling up skills and resources – at a time of global demand for rail expertise – around what appeared to be clear commitments and pledges. 

“The priority now must be to make the new approach deliver for both society and the Net Zero economy we must build. This means ensuring that the schemes that do go ahead increase rail freight capacity and encourage people out of cars, while also ensuring that they are designed as part of broader place-based regeneration strategies. With the change from Network Rail to GB Rail another potential complicating factor, ensuring a coherent and dependable pipeline of work for efficient rail investment needs to be a priority for the Department for Transport.

“Only then will rail be able to effectively contribute to improving the lives of people in communities across the UK.”

Darren Caplan, Railway Industry Association.

Darren Caplan, chief executive of the Railway Industry Association (RIA), said: “The railway industry will welcome the end of the uncertainty surrounding the Integrated Rail Plan, now it’s been published. Many of them have been preparing over the last few years to deliver the projects contained within it, and whether individual schemes have been scrapped, amended or given the green light, at least we all now know the government’s thinking.

“It is positive to see confirmation of some local and regional rail projects within the Plan – throughout the North and Midlands – and the speed at which the Government aims to deliver them. Many rail businesses will look forward to working on these. However, it is difficult to see this IRP as anything other than a piecemeal approach to national strategic railway infrastructure development, given the abandonment of HS2 Eastern Leg and the scaling back of Northern Powerhouse Rail.

“We must, of course, all recognise the short to medium term impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the UK and its economy, and welcome the fact that the government will invest significant sums in rail around the country. Yet it was only last year that Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Cabinet publicly supported delivering the HS2 scheme in full, given the capacity, connectivity and economic benefits it brings.

“Even if the government claims in the IRP it can deliver benefits more quickly with upgrades to the current network, how certain can the railway industry be that the IRP will actually be delivered, given what’s happened to the previous plan?

“Whatever schemes do proceed, RIA and our members will work with the government to take forward whichever projects do go ahead.”

Darren also chose to comment on two particular aspects of the ISP. on Northern Pwerhouse Rail, he said: “It is worrying that this scheme has been scaled back. Northern Powerhouse Rail will be essential in connecting up towns and cities in the North of England, alongside delivery of the Transpennine Route Upgrade. This project has been promised time and time again since 2014, with millions of pounds spent on its design and shovels ready to go. These plans being torn up will only add yet more costs and delay work.”

And on Midland main line and Transpennine route electrification, he added: “It is positive to see new electrification going ahead after a number of projects were halted in 2017. Electrifying the rail network is not only good for passengers and freight, providing more reliable and faster services to diesel trains, but it also essential to decarbonising the network by 2050. With only 38% of our rail network electrified – far below other developed countries – we clearly need to get on with electrifying more track and ending the hiatus in work that has negatively impacted the industry

“It’s positive to hear the Transport Secretary today suggest that work will begin on the Midland main line electrification soon. Let’s hope this is the beginning of the sustainable pipeline of electrification Government has promised.”

No doubt more reactions will follow…

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