In a speech delivered at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester this week, chancellor George Osborne said he wanted to explore the potential for a new east-west high speed rail line linking major cities in the North of England to create a ‘Northern Powerhouse’

Chancellor George Osborne has identified high speed transport links between northern cities as the number one requirement to fulfil his new policy ambition of building a “Northern  Powerhouse” to rival the economic success of London.

Reflecting on decades of failed attempts to radically strengthen the economy of the north, Osborne said that initiatives such as shifting public sector jobs and attempts to boost growth in private sector investment had proved insufficient on their own.

Instead, Osborne said the premier priority was to “think big” by creating “a radical transport plan” to deliver both short and longer term improvements. He indicated that consideration of a new high speed line to provide effective connections between  Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds should be at the heart of the strategy. The aim would be to create an experience akin to “travelling around a single global city” with a combined population greater than Tokyo or New York.

“I want us to start thinking about whether to build a new high speed rail connection east-west from Manchester to Leeds. Based on the existing rail route, but speeded up with new tunnels and infrastructure,” Osborne said.

Describing the transport network in the north as “simply not fit for purpose”, he noted that “it’s quicker to travel the 283 miles from London to Paris by train than it is to travel less than half that distance between Liverpool and Hull”. He also highlighted that “bus trips in the capital are up a third over the last 10 years, but down by 7% in the northern cities”, and indicated that the new Northern Rail franchise would include a significant upgrade in the quality of rolling stock.

“Bidders for the [new Northern]franchise will be asked to include options to get rid of outdated ‘railbus’ or Pacer style trains. It’s time for modern rolling stock in the north,” he said.

Osborne envisaged that investment in and planning of local transport would be boosted by a further plank in his plan – elected mayors for Leeds and Manchester with similar powers to the London mayor. If implemented, industry sources said one potential implication could be the break-up of Northern Rail with separate franchises let by city mayors for the Leeds and Manchester commuter networks.

The two other major building blocks in Osborne’s blueprint for a Northern Powerhouse are developing the science/university/R&D sector and creating clusters of creative industries.


This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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