Tom Richmond: The Northern Powerhouse and how not to run a railway

IT should have been an imposing sight – the two men in charge of Britain’s railways striding down a busy platform at Leeds Station to announce that the electrification of the TransPennine and Midland Mainline rail routes was back on track following a three-month ‘pause’ that derailed the credibility of the so-called Northern Powerhouse.

However it soon became clear that only one member of this dynamic duo appeared to have total command of his brief. As Network Rail’s newly-appointed chairman, Sir Peter Hendy demonstrated the engineering expertise that has been so lacking, Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin offered an object lesson into what happens when politicians are left to play with the train set.

Put simply, there would have been no need to ‘pause’ the upgrading of the main railway line across the Pennines, and the route from Sheffield to London if transport policy was being run by those with the expertise to provide the necessary oversight of such projects.

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Network Rail, aided and abetted by David Cameron and George Osborne, became so obsessed with the construction of overhead power lines, and the positive image that this would project, that they overlooked the actual practicalities – like passing points – so fast trains could actually overtake local services and meet the objective of reducing journey times between Leeds and Manchester.

Yet, despite the Tory general election campaign in the North revolving around the headline promise of the TransPennine route being electrified by 2019 in time for the next election, not one Minister on the campaign trail had spotted the flaw with this particular plan. No wonder the Northern Powerhouse became the Northern Power Cut.

At least Mr McLoughlin had the wisdom to ‘pause’ Network Rail’s entire £38.5m modernisation programme and appoint the pugnacious Sir Peter. Not only had this University of Leeds graduate served as London’s transport commissioner for nine years, but he is the only person – aside from Yorkshire’s very own Sir Gary Verity – to have successfully organised the staging of the Tour de France’s Grand Depart in this country.

And it did not take him long to realise the daunting scale of the challenge that he faced. On day three in his new job, he climbed into the cab of a train so he could enjoy a driver’s eye perspective of the Leeds to Manchester line and see the engineering complexities at first hand.

As he told The Yorkshire Post, this perspective confirmed his initial impression that this was a “Victorian coal line” masquerading as one of the country’s main routes and how a combination of long tunnels, sharp bends and antiquated signalling would prevent electrification from delivering the faster, and more reliable, train services repeatedly promised to commuters.

Yet he made an even more profound point. He said he would rather invest a further two years in the planning of this scheme, and ensure that the end result in 2022 was a world-class railway that will meet anticipated demand for the next 20 years rather than a half-baked scheme that promises much and delivers little. “It’s much better to do the job properly,” he ventured. Simple, really.

However Sir Peter’s no nonsense approach could not have been in greater contrast to the pronounced frown etched across the Transport Secretary’s face. Mr McLoughlin was clearly irritated by the suggestion that the announcement had been timed to prevent awkward questions, and allegations of hypocrisy, at the forthcoming Tory conference. He said he had acted within 24 hours of receiving his colleague’s recommendation.

Like all those politicians incapable of saying ‘no’, the Transport Secretary also clung onto the hope that other lines, like the Leeds to Harrogate route, which were also recommended for electrification prior to the election. Once again, it was Sir Peter who provided the more logical response. If the wish of travellers along this line is for a better service at peak-times, they should not hesitate to do so because it might be possible to achieve this without the rigmarole of erecting overhead lines at some distant date.

Why does this matter? Such fundamental flaws that should have been addressed by Sir Peter’s predecessors at Network Rail – and those Prime Ministers who have failed to attach sufficient importance to the role of Transport Secretary. The eighth postholder in a decade, it is a poor reflection on previous incumbents that Mr McLoughlin is one of the more able politicians to hold this brief.

Nevertheless, transport is not Patrick McLoughlin’s background – he was a miner and it’s regrettable that his expertise in this sphere is not being utilised by the Department for Energy and Climate Change. It again begs this question: why can’t people be appointed to briefs that reflect their experience?

As such, this fiasco is a microcosm of what could happen on a far greater scale if the HS2 plan is not properly managed and planned down to the last piece of track. After this example of how not to run a railway, the viability of such schemes must take precedence over the vanity of posturing politicians if Britain’s railways are to get back on track.