Northern Powerhouse Rail: 'Huge relief' as key stretch of rail network is saved

The Government’s decision to press ahead with legislation which will allow a key section of Northern Powerhouse Rail to be built has been welcomed as a “huge relief”.

When Prime Minister Rishi Sunak abandoned plans to build the northern leg of HS2 last month some were concerned he would tear up the High Speed Rail (Crewe - Manchester) Bill.

The bill, designed to pave the way for phase 2a of HS2, included a new line linking Manchester Piccadilly and Manchester Airport.

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That line was also due to form a key part of the Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) network and if it is scrapped the Department for Transport will have to come up with alternative plans and get them approved.

Picture by Bruce RollinsonPicture by Bruce Rollinson
Picture by Bruce Rollinson

The Government will continue working on the bill – but it has not set out a clear plan, budget and timeline for NPR yet.

It has previously promised to build 40 miles of high-speed railway between Warrington and Marsden and upgrading existing lines across the North, running from Liverpool to Hull.

Lord Jim O’Neill, Chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership lobby group, said: “It is a huge relief to see legislation for NPR has survived this week.

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“Dropping it would have meant losing a key section of the NPR route between Manchester Piccadilly and Manchester Airport, adding many, many years to the time it would have taken to get this critical new line to get from Yorkshire and the North-East to both the airport and on to Warrington and Liverpool.”

The HS2 line (marked in purple) was going to be used by Northern Powerhouse Rail servicesThe HS2 line (marked in purple) was going to be used by Northern Powerhouse Rail services
The HS2 line (marked in purple) was going to be used by Northern Powerhouse Rail services

When Mr Sunak scrapped the northern leg of HS2, which was due to link Birmingham and Manchester, he said £19.8bn of the money that is “saved” will be invested in hundreds of transport projects in the North – as part of a new plan known as Network North.

It also said another £12bn will be spent on improving rail connections between Manchester and Liverpool as that will “allow the delivery of NPR as previously planned”.

However, several rail experts criticised Network North during a Transport Committee hearing and said the northern leg of HS2 is needed to increase capacity.

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They told MPs the high-speed line was designed to relieve pressure on the West Coast Mainline, which can only accommodate around 13 trains an hour in the most congested stretches.

Richard Bowker, former chief executive of Strategic Rail Authority, said upgrades to the line will “be more disruptive” and they will “not deliver the same benefit” as HS2.

“The working assumption, not unreasonably, is that HS2 created the shift that solved an awful lot of capacity problems for a very long time,” he said. “We will now, I suspect, have to go back to a smorgasbord of schemes.

“They are good schemes but they are not the answer in the long term.”

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Mr Bowker also said the £10bn upgrade of the West Coast Route increased capacity “quite significantly” in 2009 – but the line reached capacity again nine years later.

Railway journalist Nigel Harris said another upgrade of the West Coast Mainline will deliver “marginal” benefits.

“I think it’s a massive waste of taxpayers’ money,” he said.