Northern Powerhouse Rail decision could define North’s prospects for rest of the century: Tim Wood

IMAGINE 20 years from now – the pandemic of 2020-21 is hopefully a distant memory. Places like Bradford and Sheffield, Hull and Leeds are bustling with the sights and sounds of a region on the up.

Confidence has flowed into the North since the decision was taken to massively upgrade the railway network across our region, bringing the economies of its towns and cities closer together to work as one.

For too long the North has been held back, unable to reach its potential by its poor rail links, its wealth of young people constrained in the jobs and opportunities they can reach from their own travel-to-work area.

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Northern Powerhouse Rail looks to change all this by hugely increasing the capacity, the frequency and the speed of rail services to a range of destinations, opening up opportunities across the North and sparking an upturn in the fortunes of its urban centres and its people.

Transport for the North has now unveiled its Northern Powerhouse Rail blueprint.

Our vision is for a north of England that is well connected with a state-of-the-art rail network enabling it to become a bed of fertility for jobs and economic growth. This month we took a big step towards the realisation of that vision when council and city region leaders unanimously agreed to a preferred network for Northern Powerhouse Rail.

The Northern Powerhouse Rail network is a mix of new lines and major upgrades, including electrification from Liverpool in the west to Hull in the east. It will feature a new line from Manchester to Leeds via the centre of Bradford; significant upgrades and journey time improvements to the Hope Valley route between Manchester and Sheffield; a new connection from Sheffield to HS2 and on to Leeds; significant upgrades and electrification of the rail lines from Leeds and Sheffield to Hull; a new line to be constructed from Liverpool to Manchester; and significant upgrades of the East Coast main line from Leeds to Newcastle.

It would see journey times between Manchester and Leeds slashed to just 28 minutes, and those between Sheffield and Hull, and Leeds and Hull, cut to under an hour.

Make no mistake. This is badly needed rail investment is a long-term solution to correct what has become a serious national imbalance in our economy caused by decades of underinvestment.

Transport for the North has now unveiled its Northern Powerhouse Rail blueprint.

Committed to in full, NPR will deliver up to £14.4bn in total gross value added to the economy by 2060; around 74,000 new jobs in the North by 2060; and an additional 12,250 seats per hour in the morning peak.

And it promises a greener future too. With the UK due to host the COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow in a few months, what better way to signal our national determination to build a cleaner infrastructure for our country than one which has the potential to take 58,000 cars off our roads every single day?

This week’s Budget was enormously important for us all as we chart our path out of one of the most challenging years many of us will ever have seen. But we are also waiting for the Government to publish a landmark report on rail investment – the Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) – which promises to spell out its vision for now it will level up the country through a thorough refit of the North’s creaking network.

The decisions taken over the next few weeks and months could define the North’s prospects for the rest of this century and into the next. That’s how important it is. Now is not the time to scale back on ambition. The Government should commit to the full, transformational vision for both Northern Powerhouse Rail and the full HS2, including to Sheffield and Leeds.

What is the future of the region's rail services?

We at Transport for the North (TfN) and our partners have been working at pace to develop this vision. For instance, we are working with Network Rail to undertake ground investigations between Leeds and Hull, as we refine our plans to upgrade the line. Early preparatory work such as this, undertaken in collaboration with local transport authorities and the Department for Transport, will help to keep costs on budget.

For us, as well as HS2, we want to see a transformative Northern Powerhouse Rail network. From this Budget, we hope to see some signals on this vital investment, but we will have to wait for the IRP to be published to see the plan in full. 

Working step by step with the DfT over the past two years, Transport for the North has come up with a detailed plan for a new network that is backed by leaders in our region and which can help us to throw off the straitjacket of poor infrastructure that has held us back for so long.

That’s why we say to the Government – we’ve done the work together, now let’s deliver for the North together. Let’s deliver Northern Powerhouse Rail. The time is now.

Tim Wood is Northern Powerhouse Rail director at Transport for the North.

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