The rail boss leading the £2.9bn upgrade of the vital route across the Pennines has insisted the scheme will pave the way for full electrification and capacity for freight as he hit back at claims the scheme is “short-changing communities and economies”.
Writing exclusively in The Yorkshire Post, Network Rail route managing director Rob McIntosh said the improvements being delivered on the trans-Pennine line between Leeds, York and Manchester in the next five years “will, in some cases literally, prepare the ground for further infrastructure investment in the future”.
The flagship scheme, which will reduce journey times, increase capacity and improve stations on the 76-mile route, will be delivered in phases from Spring 2019 but will bring significant disruption over five years.
It emerged earlier this year that the route between Leeds and Manchester will not be continuously electrified as part of the planned work and that infrastructure improvements for freight would also not be included. Instead, 'passive provision' was made for freight upgrades if funds become available at a later date.
The influential Rail Freight Group, which hoped the upgrade would allow for the faster and greener movement of goods and the alleviation of road congestion, said it was "disappointed and dissatisfied" at the decision.
Mr McIntosh said his agency was aiming to find a balance between producing the maximum benefits possible in the time and funding available while keeping as many trains running as possible across the Pennines.
He said: “There’s a tipping point – a law of diminishing returns – where the benefits of just ‘doing more’ are outweighed by the added time needed to deliver, and the unpalatable levels of disruption.”
He added that the £2.9bn programme of improvements “paves the way for more in the future when additional funding may become available”.
The upgrade includes doubling the amount of track in some areas, increasing line speeds and rebuilding stations to modern standards in a programme which "will culminate in a high-performing dependable railway, delivered incrementally".
He wrote: “The improvements will not only deliver the above benefits incrementally over the next five years but will, in some cases literally, prepare the ground for further infrastructure investment in the future, with continuous electrification and additional capacity for freight being prepared now to make their introduction much less disruptive and more cost effective in the future.”
And he rejected suggestions that the planned work “is somehow short-changing communities and economies on this route”.
Judith Blake, who leads on transport for the West Yorkshire Combined Authority and is leader of Leeds City Council, said the "welcome and much-needed £2.9 billion of enhancements must only be seen as a first stage".
She added: "It is vital the further infrastructure investment, continuous electrification and additional capacity for freight, which Rob McIntosh mentions in his article, go ahead.
“I look forward to working with Rob to help secure a programme of wholesale government investment that makes possible the long overdue upgrade of the North’s railways from a system with its origins in the Victorian era to a modern network that can meet the huge forecast growth in passenger numbers and which sets the pace of the North for the 21st Century.”