Government risks 'piecemeal' approach to rail in the North if advisors recommendations are followed, warns transport boss

The Government will risk ending up with a “piecemeal” approach to rail investment in the North if it follows the recommendations of advisors to focus solely on regional connections at the detriment of HS2, a transport leader has said.

The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) released a report this week advising the Government to boost rail investment into major projects in the North by 25 per cent, but it said this would not cover the construction of HS2 from the West Midlands all the way to Leeds.

But Chief Executive of Transport for the North, Barry White, said while the report contained some positives, it was flawed from the beginning by including the cost of overruns to HS2 in the South into financial calculations, making the North a “shock absorber” for those delays without any of the benefit.

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“All of the cost overruns on that [construction in the South] have to be paid for by the North because we're taking that money out of that pot.

Chief executive of Trasnport for the North Barry White (left) with Prime Minister Boris Johnson (right), and then Northern Powerhouse Minister Jake Berry. Photo: Getty

“That is a fundamental flaw, it just feels wrong and so what that actually means is the baseline decimates Northern Powerhouse Rail to pay for HS2’s cost overrun.” he said.

And he added: “If that's your starting point, everything thereafter is difficult.”

The NIC recommended that investment should be focused on boosting mainline services across the North and the Midlands rather than the full eastern leg of the high-speed railway to Leeds, giving the Government three options to stick with current financial estimates and only deliver some benefits, increase the budget by 25 per cent and focus on regional routes, or increase it by 50 per cent and be able to do more.

Its Rail Needs Assessment stated it would be “potentially cheaper and faster” to deliver improvements to regional journeys through a combination of new lines and upgrades, rather than Phase 2b of HS2.

Regional projects include Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) between Liverpool and Hull, and the Midlands Engine.

But Mr White said that actually even in the option where budgets are increased by 50 per cent, it is only then you start to see “a recognisable NPR network”.

He said he was keen not to create divides between the North and the South as he welcomed rail investment and the benefits it brings across the country.

But he said: “The North is being asked to be the shock absorber for a national problem. And actually, it needs a national solution for a national problem.”

He said: “The baseline scenario [in the NIC report] really doesn't give them NPR. The middle one [with a 25 per cent budget increase] gives us a very diluted NPR. And then 50 per cent actually starts to be a recognisable NPR network.

“But the big thing, on the plus 25 per cent one, is by doing partial elements, and then reconnecting to the existing network, it will mean a lot of disruption on the existing network between, say, Liverpool and Warrington, between Manchester and Leeds.

“People in Manchester, Leeds, having had disruption from the trans-Pennine route upgrade for a number of years, this could be decades of disruption on that line.

“And the other element of it, if you take the partial solution they've suggested, what you end up with then is older track with HS2 trains running on it, and competing with other local services.

“We believe that middle option with these partial elements will be a much less reliable network.”

Mr White said TfN would be presenting an alternative report to the Government, asking the Prime Minister to “look at that again from a different perspective”.

He said: “Because if this is the end of the telescope you're looking at things from, you're actually just missing some quite big fundamental issues.

“The bit that surprises me in this report is the NIC says that's a strategic bet [to go ahead with HS2 in full], but actually, actually, the Prime Minister of this country is committed to it in full.”

He said there needed to be consensus on the way forward, which had not yet been reached.

And he said TfN would pass their recommendations to the Government in early 2021.

But he said what needed to come next were some “fundamental decisions made” from the Government.

“The last two years, we've been faced with a strategic choice, do we build a new line between Leeds and Manchester via Bradford? Or do we spend a bit less money [and avoid Bradford]?

“Fundamentally, that's a choice, what we have to do is start to make those choices, Government needs to commit and look, if you're not going to go via Bradford, just tell us and we'll then come up with a plan that connects Bradford better to Leeds. We would far rather you choose to go via Bradford and made that commitment, I think Bradford has been let down by transport planning for decades, by national decision making for decades, and the interconnectivity for a major city is appalling, and there's a wrong there to be righted in our view.

“But actually at least make a decision that you don't I mean.”

And he said the “adaptive approach” taken in the NIC report that leaves the door open to further works in the future only acted to “kick the can down the road.”

“It does come down to political choice, really,” he said.

Sir John Armitt, who chairs the NIC, said: “Major rail schemes will be an important component in levelling up the country’s economic geography, but we should ensure public money is carefully spent where it can make the most difference.

“The number and scale of rail schemes currently being proposed for the North and Midlands mean that some form of prioritisation will be necessary, and we think there are ways of bringing forward benefits for communities and businesses while keeping options open for additional investments, if the circumstances are right.

“Our independent analysis offers Government various ways of targeting spending depending on the precise economic and social outcomes it wants to achieve.”

A Department for Transport spokesman said: “We welcome the NIC’s Rail Needs Assessment report published today, which suggests how we can improve our future rail network in the North and Midlands and ensure projects like HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail work together to deliver the reliable train services that passengers deserve.

“It is necessary that we take the time to consider these recommendations in full, and we therefore expect to publish the Integrated Rail Plan in early 2021.”