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20 July 2021updated 09 Sep 2021 8:44am

Why railways are key to regional growth

Efficient inter-city travel will make for a thriving Northern economy. 

By Tim Wood

Transport for the North is the voice of the North of England and the 15 million people of the North are at the heart of everything we do. We aim to connect people to jobs, health, education and leisure, as well as businesses to each other and to employees.

The potential of this wonderful region is enormous and we have a blueprint to improve its transport infrastructure to help deliver nearly £100 billion more in productivity and creating 850,000 jobs. Since being granted statutory powers in 2018 – the first English sub-national transport body – have been working with Northern leaders and the DfT on plans to rebalance the national economy and to level up the North to allow it to reach its full potential.

The North of England was the birthplace of the railways, but today its railway network is creaking at the seams. It suffers from decades of underinvestment compared to the south of England or indeed our industrial competitors around the developed world. Inter-city connections amongst the urban centres of the North are poor, meaning its wealth of young people are constrained in the jobs and opportunities they can reach from their own travel to work area.
Northern Powerhouse Rail looks to change all this by hugely increasing the capacity, the frequency and the speed of rail services to a range of destinations, opening up opportunities across the North and sparking an upturn in the fortunes of its urban centres and its people.

In March, we took a big step towards the realisation of that vision when council and city region leaders in the North of England unanimously agreed to a preferred network for Northern Powerhouse Rail.

Read more: Why rapid transit systems in Britain lag behind Europe

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This planned network is a mix of new lines and major upgrades, including electrification from Liverpool in the west to Hull in the east. It will feature a new line from Manchester to Leeds via the centre of Bradford; significant upgrades and journey time improvements to the Hope Valley route between Manchester and Sheffield; a new connection from Sheffield to HS2 and on to Leeds; significant upgrades and electrification of the rail lines from Leeds and Sheffield to Hull; a new line to be constructed from Liverpool to Manchester via the centre of Warrington; and significant upgrades of the East Coast Mainline from Leeds to Newcastle (via York and Darlington) and restoration of the Leamside line.

It would see journey times between Manchester and Leeds slashed to just 28 minutes, and those between Sheffield and Hull, and Leeds and Hull, cut to under an hour.

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Make no mistake; this is badly-needed rail investment over the coming decades, which will be the North’s single biggest transport investment since the Industrial Revolution. It is a long-term solution to correct what has become a serious national imbalance in our economy caused by decades of underinvestment in the North. The impact of the programme will be transformational not only for rail connectivity in the region but also for the economy, environment and for people’s quality of life.

Committed to in full, NPR will deliver up to £14.4 billion in total gross value added to the economy by 2060 – around 74,000 new jobs in the North by 2060, and an additional 12,250 seats per hour in the morning peak.

And it promises a greener future too. With the UK due to host the Climate Summit in a few months, what better way to signal our national determination to build a cleaner infrastructure for our country than one which has the potential to take 58,000 cars off our roads every single day?

Read more: Will the Covid census distort the next decade of transport policy? 

TfN has also launched a consultation on its Decarbonisation Strategy for the North of England. The strategy sets out the ambitious target of near-zero carbon emissions from surface transport by 2045. Among the potential actions and areas of focus the strategy considers are zero emission vehicles; the decarbonisation of the rail network through electrification and the use of hydrogen and alternative fuel vehicles.

At the time of writing we are still waiting for the government to publish a landmark report on rail investment – the Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) – which promises to spell out its vision for now it will level up the country through a thorough refit of the North’s rail network. This aims to show how large planned rail infrastructure projects like HS2, NPR, the TransPennine Rail Upgrade and others, will be dovetailed and delivered over the next 20 years.

The decisions taken over the next few weeks and months could define the North’s prospects for the rest of this century and into the next. That’s how important it is. Now is not the time to scale back on ambition. The government we hope will commit to the full, transformational vision for both Northern Powerhouse Rail and the full HS2, including to Sheffield and Leeds.

The publication too of the Williams-Shapps report is a major national moment and a shift in how the railways are run. The planned establishment of Great British Railways to oversee track and train as a guiding mind, alongside plans for new service contracts and flexible fares, is something we at TfN have been championing for some time.

It is an opportunity for devolution which cannot be missed, giving the North’s leaders greater oversight of services and infrastructure investment to deliver more integrated regional networks that work for everyone. We will work with the government as it begins to work through the detail and we stand ready to drive positive change in the interests of our passengers.

There is a lot of work to do. TfN has already worked together with the government in developing a vision of a successful and connected North. Now let’s crack on and deliver that vision for the North together.

Tim Wood is interim CEO at Transport for the North. 

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