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Improving rail links in Midland and North a ‘priority’

Words: Laura Edgar
Rail / Shutterstock_167720543

The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has said improving rail links between cities in the North and Midlands should be the top priority in a new approach that seeks to end stop-start investments in order to level up the UK.

This should be part of a wider economic strategy.

The conclusion is published in Rail Needs Assessment for the Midlands and the North, a report of the findings from an assessment Prime Minister Boris Johnson asked the NIC to conduct into proposed rail schemes. It will be used to inform the government’s integrated rail plan.

The commission highlights the need for the plan to set out a rolling programme of affordable investments.

The report comprises analysis of how schemes that have been proposed in the North and Midlands, such as Northern Powerhouse Rail between Liverpool and Hull, the Midlands Engine Rail programme, and HS2 phase 2b linking Birmingham to Manchester via Crewe, and to Leeds via the East Midlands, might be sequenced and prioritised.

It considers how different packages would improve connections between places and the productivity between them, and the impact they could have on the environment.

The commission notes that rail performs most cost effectively when providing high-capacity transport in and around heavily populated areas, therefore it suggests, links between nearby cities are likely to achieve “greater” economic benefits for the Midlands and the North more quickly, compared with alternative schemes.

This is because such packages:

  • Improve the quality of regional, largely east-to-west rail links between cities within the Midlands and the North, which are generally inferior to longer-distance rail links.
  • Focus on schemes that can provide the biggest potential improvements in productivity across the Midlands and the North.
  • Deliver greater improvements to connectivity for several key cities, including Nottingham, Coventry, Derby, Manchester and Liverpool, while also providing significant improvements to a range of smaller places, such as Crewe, Doncaster, Huddersfield and Warrington, and potentially Hull under the electrification programme.
  • Address the biggest problems of existing poor capacity and connectivity, with significant further capacity added to Birmingham, Manchester and around Leeds, particularly on the route to York, and improved connectivity between and within the West and East Midlands, for example, dramatically improving journey times between Birmingham and Nottingham.

Although prioritising regional links would provide higher local economic benefits, the commission stresses that this does not rule out the further development of options to complete phase 2, eastern leg, of HS2.

It also outlines how different mixes of schemes could work together to deliver strategic objectives within several budgets. The budgets begin at £86 billion, which is the amount the commission proposes should be spent on strategic rail schemes in the North and Midlands, including relevant parts of HS2 phase 1 and 2a, based on cost estimates at the time of the 2018 National Infrastructure Assessment. The other indicative budgets are £108 billion and £129 billion.

Because of increases in the costs of many rail schemes since 2018, £86 billion only provides enough funding for upgrades and some new lines. The commission feels that this is unlikely to meet the strategic objective of ‘levelling up’ in the North and the Midlands.

The integrated rail plan should be long-term in its approach and should the government decide to commit to “higher levels of investment in rail it should initially set out a firm commitment to a pipeline of affordable core investments, with a clear funding profile and rigorous costings (using the upper end of cost ranges), that should not be reopened”.

The commission advises that the integrated rail plan should not overpromise. The report states that the plan “presents an opportunity for this government to break the cycle of committing to major rail schemes, underestimating the costs and ultimately having to reopen plans or find additional funding”.

For the plan to support growth in the Midlands and the North, it must form part of a wider regional growth strategy. Large parts of this should be delivered by city regions.

Sir John Armitt, chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, 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.”

The report can be found on the National Infrastructure Commission website (pdf).

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