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Government / Local politics

Ministers have shelved the Transpennine rail upgrade. Is the Northern Powerhouse dead?

Note: This story was edited at 14.00hrs, to include some counter arguments to our angry rant. You can read them at the bottom of the story.

Seven weeks ago, the Conservative party won Britain’s general election on a manifesto which pledged to rebalance Britain’s economy and turn the cities of England’s M62 corridor into a “Northern Powerhouse”.

A lot of that policy has turned out to be PR fluff, of the standing-about-on-building-sites-in-high-viz-jackets variety. But at the core of it were two big and concrete ideas. One was devolving power; the other was a major investment in the region’s transport links, to make it possible to live in, say, Bradford, and commute to work in Manchester.

Anyway. Yesterday, this happened:

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The government says it will delay or cut back a number of modernisation projects planned for Network Rail.

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin says rising costs and missed targets make the £38.5bn five-year plan untenable.

He blamed Network Rail, saying it should have foreseen the improvements would cost more and take longer.

(That’s from the BBC.)

There were three major rail upgrades included in this plan. One is the electrification of the core section of the Transpennine route, between Manchester and Leeds. That’s been shelved.

Another is the electrification of the Midland mainline, between Bedford, Nottingham and Sheffield. (The section south of Bedford, which serves the London commuter market, was electrified years ago). That’s been shelved too.

The third is electrification of the Great Western line, from London towards Oxford, Bristol and Cardiff. Has that been shelved too? Here’s McLoughin again:

Electrification of the Great Western line is a top priority and I want Network Rail to concentrate its efforts on getting that right.

It’s not that we’re cynical about the government’s commitment to the Northern Powerhouse, exactly. But, well:

While we’re not being cynical, check out this map from Network Rail’s latest annual report, showing its major infrastructure projects in 2014-15.

One project in Scotland, one in the north, two in the Midlands… and four in London. I live in London. I work in London. I have been a Londoner all my life.

But come on.


The government has framed these cuts as an emergency response to problems at Network Rail: yesterday, it also announced that the body’s current chair Richard Parry-Jones was stepping down, to be replaced by London’s transport commissioner, Sir Peter Hendy. The implication is that ministers would just love to continue with the investment plan they announced last year, but simply can’t afford it.

But there are two problems with this. One is that Network Rail has said it knew early last year that the five-year plan would be “incredibly difficult to deliver”. The Conservative party must have known that, even as it made all those manifesto commitments to investing in the north.

The other, bigger problem is that it is very, very obvious that schemes affecting the north have been axed, while those restricted to the south haven’t.

From an economic modelling perspective this probably makes sense: as we’ve explained before, projects affecting a big and rich city like London will always do better in a cost:benefit analysis than those that don’t.

But it nonetheless means that rich southern commuters are getting investment, while less rich northern ones are stuck with the same crappy service they’ve had for decades.

If the government or its civil service are really serious about rebalancing Britain’s economy, and creating a northern powerhouse, this is a funny way of going about it.

EDIT: 14.00hrs

Pains us though it does to say it, we might have been a little unfair here. On our Facebook page (where you should definitely all like us, by the way), Nick Kingsley, the managing editor of Railway Gazette International, and a northerner himself, has got in touch to point out the other side of the story.

You can read his full comments on Facebook, but here, reposted with Nick’s permission, are the key points:

 

1) You don’t cancel projects that have already been started.

“…the main reason the Great Western project is proceeding is because it’s well in hand, not because it is in the south. Neither the [Midland Main Line] nor [Transpennine] projects have yet seen serious work begin in earnest.”

 

2) Electrification isn’t all it’s cracked up to be anyway.

“…it mainly delivers benefit to the rail asset manager itself, ie. Network Rail, by reducing track wear and maintenance cost.

“Yes, journeys get a bit quieter and a bit more pleasant, possibly through new rolling stock (though not always). But electrification alone does not deliver a step change in capacity or connectivity.”

 

3) It’s better to take a bit longer but do things right.

“On the Manchester – Leeds corridor, there was serious concern that electrification on the existing alignment would worsen a capacity squeeze that sees the limited-stop inter-city service taking capacity away from trains serving local stations.

“As the Transport Secretary’s statement clearly implied, it might be better to come up with a much more robust rail investment programme which encompasses the HS3 idea [an entirely new Transpennine line] before we embark on a tricky, potentially flawed “patch and mend” job on just one of the five trans-Pennine rail arteries.”

 

Valid points all.

So perhaps, in the short term, this is the correct decision. It remains striking, nonetheless, how many of the projects that were already underway, and therefore untouchable – the Great Western, Thameslink, Crossrail – are the ones affecting London.

HS3, by contrast, is little more than a whizzy brand name at this point. Rather like the Northern Powerhouse itself.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.
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