Transport for the North (TfN) has told Ministers that there should be no further work on developing plans for dual carriageways between Sheffield and Manchester or further north between East Lancashire and North Yorkshire, The Yorkshire Post has learned.
It means plans for a twin bore Trans-Pennine tunnel beneath the Peak District set out in 2016 by former Chancellor George Osborne to improve journeys on a route dubbed the "longest 35 miles in the UK" are now very unlikely to become reality.
And TfN has also advised Transport Secretary Grant Shapps that no further work should be done on a possible motorway or dual carriageway across the central Pennines between the A1M and M6 due to "significant challenges in delivering a major strategic route".
But Yorkshire's only metro mayor has warned against a "binary choice" between making road and rail improvements and says both are needed to end the "dire" connections between Sheffield and Manchester.
The lack of east-west connections in northern England has long been considered a major problem for the region's economy, with too much reliance on the M62 motorway. The A628 between Sheffield and Manchester shuts dozens of times a year due to bad weather.
Further north the Government is converting the A66 into a dual carriageway between the A1(M) at Scotch Corner and the M6 at Penrith, in a £1bn project described as the "biggest ever investment in a single road project in the North".
At a TfN meeting this month, chairman John Cridland said two studies commissioned by the Department for Transport into further dual carriageways across the Pennines "didn't pass the test of cost and benefit and environmental impact, but there is still a need to improve road connections in these two very important corridors".
He added: "So in a sense we are lowering our ambition on road new build in order to come up with something which is more proportionate and more environmentally sensitive."
The two studies led by Highways England were among six commissioned by the Department for Transport and are now awaiting a ministerial decision by Mr Shapps.
In a letter to the Transport Secretary, TfN chief executive Barry White said road connections were "poor" in both the southern and central Pennines.
He wrote: "There is still a requirement to identify deliverable and financially viable solutions supporting our shared strategic objectives for levelling up the economy, delivering environmental benefits and supporting improved quality of life for citizens in the North.
"We would all want to see future work to progress at speed. Our advice therefore proposes that TfN should act as the sponsor for further work to investigate viable options for a coherent package of improvements for both corridors."
Dan Jarvis, Mayor of the Sheffield City Region, said action was needed to end the "dire road and rail connectivity between Sheffield and Manchester". The journey takes around 80 minutes on uncongested roads and a minimum of 53 minutes by train on the Hope Valley Line, which local officials say is in urgent need of upgrading.
Mr Jarvis added: "If the Government are serious about levelling up, they must work with us to address this challenge.
“The Government need to urgently agree to develop a deliverable environmentally sustainable solution that not only addresses the current congestion and capacity issues, but also improves the resilience of the route during bad weather. The benefits of this would be felt across the wider North.
“However, we must ensure that this does not become a binary choice between improving rail and road links across the Pennines. Both are needed to address different problems and improve connectivity for both passengers and businesses.
"As Mayor I’ve put pressure on the Government to take seriously the much-needed upgrade to the Hope Valley Line. I now need them to do the same for our trans-pennine road connectivity.”
When the possibility of a trans-Pennine tunnel was first suggested, it was anticipated that an improved route could double the existing usage on the A628 and cut journey times by half an hour.
While improved train services would also help, officials say this would mostly benefit people living close the main urban centres and not have the same wider benefits as improving road links. This includes making it easier for freight to get across the North to main ports such as Immingham on the east coast.
The initial idea proposed by George Osborne in 2016 was for a 25 mile dual carriageway to include between 12 and 20 miles of tunnel through the Peak District. But because of the cost, attention then turned to using the existing A628 with a tunnel at the highest point in the Peak District.
Peter Molyneux, major roads director for Transport for the North, likens the major roads between Stoke-on-Trent and Glasgow as being like a ladder. The M6 and A1M are the outside frame but there is only one east-west 'rung' in the form of the M62.
The hope is that more rungs can be created by improving the capacity and reliability of the A66, the A59 from Merseyside to North Yorkshire and the A628 which connects Sheffield and Manchester.
He told The Yorkshire Post that rather than advise Mr Shapps to make a 'yes or no' decision on a new road, TfN should suggest further work on less intrusive and expensive improvements to road and rail.
He said: "Our rationale was, if we say no then we're still left with the problem that actually Sheffield and Greater Manchester are still poorly linked and you don't resolve that issue, so we're just left with a problem.
"If it was easy it probably would have been done by now but it's always going to be difficult, particularly with the environmental issues. So our recommendation, based on members' advice, was let's look at it as a multi-modal study, so what can improved rail links to Sheffield and Greater Manchester offer that could be part of the solution.
"And given the impacts of travel following the pandemic, do we need something as substantial as a dual carriageway through the Peak District National Park and a twin bore tunnel?
"We are actually looking to the future where we may have autonomous connected vehicles, we will have decarbonisation of the fleet, we will have different ways in the way people travel, could we actually still get a substantial amount of the benefits with a less intrusive construction. Maybe just go for a single bore tunnel.
"In this post-Brexit world we're already starting to see the fact that the southern ports are struggling to take it and if the North is going to do business with the rest of the world, then we need to have links to our ports and have those East West links, so we can move goods across the country and improve that connectivity."
A Department for Transport spokeswoman said: “We are focused on investing billions to level-up infrastructure across the North. We have committed £1billion to dual the A66 which will transform travel across the northern Pennines and are continuing to work with Northern leaders to identify their priorities.”
'New approach needed'
A leading countryside charity says the climate emergency and pandemic calls for a “fundamental re-evaluation” of how road links between Sheffield and Manchester can be improved.
In a letter to Transport for the North, CPRE says the decision to abandon plans for a full dual carriageway as part of a ‘trans-Pennine tunnel’ “does not go far enough”.
Anne Robinson, a campaigner with the Peak District and South Yorkshire branch, said a new approach was needed in the light of changes to the Green Book which guides Treasury decision-making. A review published last year concluded that the way schemes are currently appraised is likely to undermine the government’s aim to “level up” poorer regions.
But Ms Robinson said it also highlighted how the strategic case for many infrastructure proposals, a criticism she believes applies to the Department for Transport’s original 2015 study into trans-Pennine transport.
She said: “A road scheme was progressed without considering interventions that could maximise social, environmental and economic outcomes and sustain northern communities.”
The campaigner urged TfN to consider how transport in the southern Pennines could contribute to a reduction in carbon emissions and how it could “sustain and enhance local communities”. Ms Robinson writes: “In conclusion, we urge you to re-evaluate the approach to travel within the A628 transPennine corridor, taking into account the issues identified above.
“If this reassessment is done properly the conclusion might be reached - as it already has with the M6-A1M - that the A57 Links Roads and Trans-Pennine Tunnel schemes are also not justified.”
In 2017, the Peak District National Park Authority said it was “disappointed” that a full tunnel solution was not being taken forward.
It said in a statement at the time: “In line with longstanding government policy, our view is that any new road inside the National Park should be supported only if there was a compelling national need which could not be met by other reasonable means.
“Any development should enrich our landscapes and important wildlife habitats while enhancing the enjoyment of our visitors and the quality of life for our communities.”