Greengauge 21 says there are serious problems to be addressed in the North’s rail network over the next decade

The planned Northern Powerhouse Rail network

A new report published by high speed rail lobby group Greengauge 21 has called on the government to improve the north of England’s rail network as a priority and that it should not wait for the arrival of HS2 in two decades time before kick-starting improvements.

While the report, Revisiting High Speed North, acknowledges the second phase of HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR), are important and welcomed as a long-term means of levelling up the northern economy and driving change, there are serious problems to be addressed in the North’s rail network in the next five to 10 years that cannot wait for these flagship schemes.

Greengauge 21 argues an incremental approach of upgrading the existing network needs to start straight away, designed to link up with these major projects to create High Speed North.

“Taking action to address the issues in the northern rail network becomes all the more important in the context of the Covid-19 outbreak,” it adds. “Post virus, government will need to champion public works which are able to quickly deliver on the ground to get the economy moving and to demonstrate results on the decarbonisation and levelling up agendas.”

Taking action to address the issues in the northern rail network becomes all the more important in the context of the Covid-19 outbreak

The report stresses rail capacity across the north of England is strained with long distance, commuter and freight traffic all competing for too little space on the tracks. While the consequences for passengers are understood, the lobby group argues it is also having a significant impact on freight capacity, where average speed on trans-Pennine rail services can be as low as 16mph.

“Moving freight is vital for the economy and, for environmental reasons, there must be a growing emphasis on expanding the role of rail freight, powered by electric traction,” it adds.

The report therefore proposes a number of interventions, including:

  • Following the model of the construction of the UK motorway network, which was built in stages with incremental benefits throughout, building up to a coherent overall plan, but make sure it can be constructed in financially digestible chunks;
  • Electrification of Manchester-Liverpool has already taken place. But none of the long-term upgrade plans address the problem of congested city centre rail networks. This has to be tackled now, the report’s authors say, if the benefits of HS2 and NPR are to be fully realised;
  • A Piccadilly Super Hub is proposed, meeting the strong desire of Manchester authorities for an east-west ‘through’ HS2 station underground at Manchester Piccadilly. This would involve a new tunnel from Ordsall into Piccadilly from the west: infrastructure that could be used by fast trains from Chester and North Wales, Liverpool, Blackpool, Barrow and Glasgow, with services emerging eastwards and across the Pennines to Leeds/Bradford, Sheffield, Hull, York and Newcastle. This would transform Piccadilly into the one of the best connected transport hubs in the entire country. There is no need, say the report’s authors, to wait for the arrival of HS2 and NPR to make a start with the Super Hub;
  • With all long distance services removed from the problem Castlefield corridor, Manchester is presented with a ready-made Picc-Vic link that is complete with three intermediate city centre stations. This would use the recently built Ordsall viaduct and means that a Thameslink-style main line metro can link together places such as Rochdale and Burnley with a reliable commuter rail service at last;
  • The report shows how to make early progress on tying together the North’s labour markets, bringing fast growing places like Leeds, Warrington and Manchester together with more challenging labour markets like Wigan, Stalybridge, Huddersfield, Bradford, Sunderland and St Helens; and
  • Connect all of the North’s towns into the network – and ensure that stations can serve as mobility hubs with connecting buses, bike hire, walk and cycle ways, provision for electric car charging and so on.

The rail network in Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Sheffield does not work- the North deserves better

“Simply put, the rail network in Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Sheffield does not work- the North deserves better,” said report co-authors Ian Wray, David Thrower and Jim Steer. “The north will benefit from the arrival of HS2 and NPR, but these are long term schemes that will not be delivered to the north until the 2040s. So, it is important that steps are taken in the government’s new integrated rail plan, known as High Speed North, to address immediate concerns in the existing network.

“It’s not enough to provide fast links between the major cities of the north. It is also essential to overcome existing bottlenecks, and to tie together more distant labour market areas and towns with the centres of the major cities like Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield.

“Ultimately, we do need a grand design, but we need a realistic delivery programme too.”

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