North’s route-map to better rail services – Bridget Rosewell

What rial improvements should be prioritised in the region?What rial improvements should be prioritised in the region?
What rial improvements should be prioritised in the region?
I WILL not be the first on these pages to observe that Yorkshire and surrounding counties have been afflicted by poor rail services for far too long.

With the fastest trains between Manchester and Leeds running at half of the speed of some of those between Reading and London, the scope for improvement is plain to see.

The Government recognises this, and rightly sees rail as critical to delivering its commitment to ‘levelling up’. But to do that successfully, we need to break the cycle of delays and false starts for rail improvements.

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We have a golden opportunity to do things differently – confirming a set of projects with the long term funding needed to deliver them, around which communities and business can plan and integrate with local policies.

The National Infrastructure Commission accepts the case for major rial improvements in Yorkshire.The National Infrastructure Commission accepts the case for major rial improvements in Yorkshire.
The National Infrastructure Commission accepts the case for major rial improvements in Yorkshire.

Crucially, we need an early commitment to core investments – such as upgrading the Midland Mainline between Leeds, Sheffield and the East Midlands as well as the Transpennine Route Upgrade – that will bring quicker benefits for passengers while keeping development of other schemes going.

To help with this process, the National Infrastructure Commission has undertaken an independent assessment looking at various schemes currently in the pipeline. Ministers asked us to look at a range of proposed investments, from Northern Powerhouse Rail between Liverpool to Hull, to the HS2 line linking Birmingham to Leeds via the East Midlands, to plans for the Midlands Rail Hub stretching right between Nottingham and the South West.

We’ve inevitably heard a variety of views on the benefits and disadvantages of different schemes. Of course, it’s tempting to say we should just do everything. But the challenge is that the various schemes on the table are estimated to cost between £140bn and £185bn in total.

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Rail schemes will need to be balanced against other types of investment that are crucial to local economic growth – such as local transport, road maintenance and high speed broadband. Such decisions will ultimately need to be taken by the Government, partly through its forthcoming Integrated Rail Plan.

Should improvements to local rail services take precedence over HS2?Should improvements to local rail services take precedence over HS2?
Should improvements to local rail services take precedence over HS2?

But it is clear that there is a strong case for more investment in rail across Yorkshire and the North, including going further than the Transpennine Route upgrade to bring faster services from local cities to Manchester and Liverpool, and adding capacity to congested routes, especially between Leeds and York.

Our analysis suggests that improving links between cities in the North is where improved train services can make the biggest economic difference to people’s wages and the ability of regional firms to do business.

In 2018-19, some 60 per cent of train journeys in Yorkshire were to other places within the region, compared to just 10 per cent to London. That also chimes with our research – people want improvements to journeys they need to take most regularly.

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While we’ve found that the highest local economic benefits are likely to be delivered by initially prioritising regional links, this should go alongside the further development of other plans, such as those for completing HS2’s eastern leg.

These decisions are being taken in an uncertain context. Future patterns of work and mobility might change in the light of Covid-19, though I believe that large towns and cities will continue to drive economic performance and will need transport infrastructure.

Now more than ever, we need new transport links to accelerate economic benefits across the North and Midlands. That includes investment alongside major rail projects. Leeds is currently one of the largest cities in Europe without a mass transit system, holding back the potential benefits of any new intercity links.

National rail strategy needs to work alongside other policies, such as local transport, development and skills. Government must work in true partnership with local councils in Yorkshire and beyond if we want to transform economic opportunities across all parts of the country.

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We hope our independent analysis offers an additional evidence base to inform these decisions in the best interests of the North and Midlands.

While those new train services may be some way from the platform just now, it’s important that they are scheduled to bring the economic impact we need to get Britain back on track.

Bridget Rosewell is a National Infrastructure Commissioner.

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