The Integrated Rail Plan – the Government’s vision for rail investment across the North and Midlands – will not deliver a new eastern HS2 line to Yorkshire and the new Northern Powerhouse Rail line has been scaled back.
However the plan includes new line, a series of upgrades and electrification, as well as a mass transit network for Leeds. It’s now up to industry to optimise the plan and deliver a vision that maximises benefits for communities.
This plan matters because the improvement rail has on communities is so much bigger than whether someone can get a train from A to B.
Rail is a measurably more sustainable mode of travel compared to road. New rail is a catalyst for connecting people to businesses and jobs, sustainable new housing and breathing economic opportunity into places which have been ignored for generations.
There’s no doubt that the sooner communities get new rail, the sooner they benefit – but we must make sure this isn’t a race that is collectively lost. It’s imperative that the wider vision for mobility across the North and Midlands is maintained if levelling up is to happen.
Regional leaders and stakeholders have already expressed their disappointment at missed opportunities in the plan. Now we need them to take stock with industry and look at how we can best deliver what we know is on the table.
Instead of these schemes coming directly from Network Rail, devolution means that some rail projects can be initiated and driven at a local level in partnerships between industry and devolved authorities.
The opportunity to form these new partnerships also offers the opportunity to look at how we build new rail lines and whether industry can be faster and more efficient.
If we look around the country at other rail schemes, particularly rail lines being restored and enhanced, we can start to see examples of where schemes have been built much faster than usual.
In Devon, AECOM designed the track alignment for the Okehampton line, which opened in just nine months from funding being approved.
In Northumberland, we’re part of a new way of delivering the passenger railway and stations with the local authority, which will see rail services commence by 2024 – an unprecedented acceleration in the time it usually takes for similar projects.
So, how’s it being done?
The first element is to create a compelling case for the new rail infrastructure, opening up economic opportunities and connecting communities to jobs, contributing to decarbonisation by taking vehicles off the road and putting pride back into isolated communities.
All the way through the project, we need to keep hold of that vision of how it benefits the community and ensure people’s voices are heard. If we get everyone on board earlier, this makes it simpler and quicker to get buy in, get the scheme off the ground and progress through the planning stages.
Secondly, we look and relook at the project programme and – without compromising quality or safety at any time – see where we can be more efficient and better prepared for any problems during construction.
Much of the work is meticulous and you need experience to know you’re making the right decisions.
Then you need to be able to pass that knowledge and confidence on to those in charge of the scheme through trust, so they’re supporting your next step rather than pulling you back to the drawing board.
The question now is how this faster approach can be rolled out across more projects in the North and Midlands so that passengers and communities can get the benefits of rail investment sooner.
To do that, industry needs government to quickly establish a pipeline of work so that we can get behind it and make sure we’ve got the skills in place to deliver and get shovels in ground sooner.
Industry has a vital role to play in delivering the Government’s levelling up agenda and we stand ready to work with local leaders and communities to make this work.
We know rail alone cannot level up the UK, but government and industry has to step up and deliver rail schemes in the North and Midlands at pace.
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