The Integrated Rail Plan for the North and Midlands (IRP) proposes a much-needed investment in rail infrastructure in the Midlands and North. We welcome the scale of the Government’s promised spending on improving rail in the North and the Midlands. £96 billion is a very substantial sum; it has the potential to transform rail travel for future generations and make a significant contribution to levelling up the country.
There is still a need for prioritisation and hard choices, however, and the proposals set out in the Integrated Rail Plan have already left some towns and cities very disappointed. The reduction of the HS2 Eastern Leg and the choice of Option 1 for Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) will reduce the prospects of meeting ambitions for the North by limiting the vital capacity needed for growth. We have looked in detail at the implications of these decisions for Leeds and Bradford, but other communities across the North such as Hull and Sheffield are also affected.
The original purpose of NPR was to connect these great cities of the North and enable them to grow; latterly rail is central to the Government’s ambition to level up the country. The evidence base for the IRP must be reconsidered in the light of these aims, if this once-in-a-generation investment in rail is not to be a missed opportunity.
Assessing the outcomes
It is crucial that decisions on how to spend this investment are based on the fullest possible evidence for what will bring the greatest overall benefit to rail services, to the economy, to the environment and to communities across the North and Midlands. We are concerned that the evidence base for the IRP is insufficient to fully understand and substantiate the decisions contained in it:
- An updated benefit-cost ratio (BCR) has not been calculated for HS2 without the full Eastern leg; we ask the Government to publish updated BCRs, using methodology that fully reflects impacts on regional inequalities, by March 2023. This is essential to give confidence that changes to the HS2 Eastern leg have been properly assessed.
- A full analysis of the wider economic impacts of the different Northern Powerhouse Rail options is needed, and BCR analyses must be produced for all NPR options. Upgrading lines will bring modest benefits, but not to the transformative extent needed to end regional imbalances. The Government must remain open to the possibility that Options 2 or 3 for Northern Powerhouse Rail would represent the best potential value: this would be consistent with the spirit of commitments previously made by the Prime Minister to investigate all the options, and to allow the lead on what comes next to be taken locally.
- The Government must by September 2022 set out a timetable for its study on how best to take HS2 to Leeds. This work is urgently needed to demonstrate that the commitment made to Leeds for high speed connections will be fulfilled.
Stations and cities
Without adequate station infrastructure and capacity, the IRP’s aspirations for increasing capacity across the network would fall at the first hurdle. Several important stations are already over capacity and need development if they are to handle even the smallest of benefits under the IRP.
- We ask the Government to commit to supporting redevelopment of Leeds station by 2035 so that it has sufficient capacity to accommodate planned additional services.
- The Government should reconsider the case for the development of a new station in Bradford.
- There is a need for a renewed, transparent conversation about the risks and benefits of the underground station option at Manchester Piccadilly. The possibility of significant land value being unlocked by the underground option—and therefore of local contributions to the scheme—should factor into these conversations.
- As part of the review of the Midlands Rail Hub, the Government should commit to provision of the eastern chord in Birmingham.
Realising the benefits
The Government claims that the IRP will deliver improved journey times at a lower cost and to a quicker timescale than the plans it supersedes. Much of its success, therefore, depends on being able to deliver upgrades to cost and time, while minimising disruption, but doubts remain about the achievability of these benefits and strategies to mitigate disruption. The Government’s case for the IRP is based on a best-case scenario which may not come to pass.
- The Government’s presentation of the benefits of the IRP core pipeline in comparison to previous plans should factor in time and cost ranges that reflect the contingency that will, realistically, be needed for such a large and complex package of work.
- We received detailed evidence that cast doubt on the plausibility of the journey time reductions that are achievable under the plans to upgrade existing lines rather than build new ones; we ask the Government to publish its full technical appraisals of the feasibility of these reductions.
- The Government’s fixation on journey times as a benefit of the IRP must not overshadow the issue of track capacity. The Department for Transport should commission a full independent assessment of the seat and track capacity offered by the IRP compared to previous plans for HS2 and other options for NPR, taking into account effects on both long-distance and local passenger services, and freight capacity.
- The Department for Transport should publish a rail freight strategy, including a detailed assessment of how the IRP will achieve greater capacity for and use of rail freight.
- We ask for a timetable for implementing a detailed mitigation strategy to minimise disruption caused by implementation of the IRP, including plans for consultation with local communities and stakeholders.