‘Amber’ warning for rail upgrade

A MAJOR rail improvement scheme aimed at delivering £4bn of benefits to the economy of the North of England has been given an “amber” warning light by business leaders amid fears it is not progressing quickly enough.

The British Chambers of Commerce said of 13 key projects across the country, only three are going ahead, two have some funding committed, but eight had been delayed, cancelled or were merely under consideration.

The so-called Northern Hub scheme, a 14-strong package of measures designed to improve services running east to west across the North, was one of two given an amber light by the BCC, which said funding had been allocated and planning was under way, but there was no date for final delivery.

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It said the Government had committed to the project in summer and delivery of all projects was uncertain, “but there have been confident steps forward in recent months”.

The bulk of the 13 priority transport schemes the BCC identified as vital before the 2010 general election were given a “red” signal, however, including the scrapped third runway plan at Heathrow.

The BCC said: “While the Government has taken important steps to boost infrastructure funding and delivery since the first Budget, the updated assessment shows that too many transport projects, which are crucial to business growth, are stuck in the slow lane.”

It said the three BCC-earmarked projects going ahead were the Birmingham Motorway Scheme, the Forth Replacement Crossing and Crossrail London.

Crucial aspects of the Northern Hub include the electrification of the trans-Pennine line between Manchester and York; major upgrades at Manchester Piccadilly and Victoria to improve through services to and from Liverpool; and improvements on the lines between Manchester and Bradford and Manchester and Sheffield.

Journey times between Leeds and Manchester will be cut by 15 minutes, and between Leeds and Liverpool by over half an hour. There will be more services between northern cities every hour and the capacity for thousands of extra passengers to use the regional rail networks, while Huddersfield station will also see a major upgrade to increase capacity.

BCC director of policy Dr Adam Marshall said: “We need bold action from the Government to improve the UK’s transport infrastructure. This kind of investment is insulated from global uncertainty, and it creates short-term confidence, jobs in the medium term, and improves the UK’s competitiveness in the long term.”

Transport Minister Norman Baker said: “Making sure that the country has the transport network it needs to deliver economic growth is a top priority for us.

“That is why, despite the economic challenges we face, we have committed to building HS2, a hugely ambitious infrastructure project which will support and sustain long-term growth across the whole country. In addition, our massive programme of investment – the biggest since the 19th century – in the current railway system includes substantial investment to increase capacity on the East Coast Main Line over the next two years as well as £240m for the industry to spend on the route between 2014 and 2019.

“This is on top of the £1.8 billion we are spending on local major transport projects and the £3 billion we are providing to start work on 20 major road schemes and to complete work on another eight between 2010 and 2015.

“We are confident that the approach we are taking will deliver the infrastructure the country needs for business to flourish.”