The plan to improve inter-city connections across the region received a major shot in the arm earlier this year. Kevin Smith speaks with NPR director at Transport for the North, Tim Wood, about how the project is progressing.

During his speech to parliament on February 11 in which he reaffirmed the government’s commitment to HS2, British prime minister, Mr Boris Johnson, also endorsed the project to improve east-west rail connections between cities in northern England.

“This is not an either/or proposition,” Johnson said. “Both are needed, and both will be built - as quickly and cost-effectively as possible.”

First proposed by the then chancellor, Mr George Osborne, in 2014, Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) as it is now known, is a combination of existing line upgrades and new infrastructure, which together will dramatically improve journey times, connectivity and capacity between northern cities.

Northern leaders have long complained that their region’s needs have been ignored by the government in London. They accuse Westminster of prioritising investment in the capital and the southeast over recent decades to the detriment of the north’s productivity, resulting in an ever-widening economic gap between north and south.

Their claims do have merit.

While the north is home to around 15.7 million people - around 7 million more than the population of Greater London - the region reports around half of the capital’s Gross Value Added (GVA). Poor connectivity between regional centres, which are relatively close together - Manchester is 69km from Leeds and Sheffield and 56km from Liverpool - is considered a key factor in restricting business growth and opportunities.

Infrastructure rationalisations

Regular users of the north’s network complain of severe overcrowding at peak times and poor on time performance. A series of infrastructure rationalisations beginning with the Beeching cuts in the 1960s restricted the railway’s capacity. The average speed between cities is just 87km/h. And as passenger numbers have surged in the last 20 years, the network is struggling to cope. New rolling stock is helping but the Northern franchise was taken into government ownership in February due to persistent poor performance with the operator bemoaning the failure of Network Rail (NR) to deliver promised infrastructure improvements.

NPR, a £39bn 200km/h electrified network equipped with ETCS Level 2 and spread across seven corridors, is considered the vehicle to deliver this improved connectivity while meeting future demand. NPR would bring more than 10 million people within 90 minutes of four or more major northern cities. This compares with 2 million today. NPR and HS2 will also bring 8.7 million people to within 1h 30min of Manchester International Airport compared with 4 million currently.

The seven NPR corridors

Transport for the North (TfN), Britain’s first statutory sub-national transport body, which was established in 2018 to make the case for strategic transport improvements across the north of England, is working on a co-client basis with the Department for Transport (DfT) to oversee development and delivery of the project. TfN’s board is made up of northern political leaders including metro mayors as well as local enterprise partnerships and statutory bodies HS2 Ltd, NR and Highways England.

“NPR and HS2 are both economic projects, and both are about allowing the north to deliver its full potential,”

Tim wood, NPR director at TfN

According to TfN’s 2018 Northern England Strategic Transport Plan, demand for rail travel in the region is expected to grow from 178 million journeys a year to 760 million by 2050. NPR will help to address this demand by providing an extra 35,000 seats on trains operating across the region every hour. Improving rail connectivity could help deliver an economic boost to the region of up to £100bn and aid wider decarbonisation efforts (see below).

“NPR and HS2 are both economic projects, and both are about allowing the north to deliver its full potential,” says Mr Tim Wood, NPR director at TfN. “Together they will help to create 850,000 new jobs by 2050 and give us the extra capacity and connectivity which we absolutely need in the north of England. It will also offer improved speed. When we use the train, we need a seat and we need to have basic connectivity. We need the train to leave and arrive at its destination on time and I don’t think that is too much to ask in the 21st century.”

NPR received £75m in government grant funding for 2020-21. Work is currently focused on delivering a refreshed Strategic Outline Business Case for the project, which will be presented to the TfN board in January 2021. The board unanimously approved the initial Strategic Outline Business Case in February 2019.

Tim Wood, NPR director at Transport for North

Wood expects further funding to be allocated in the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review, which is scheduled for the summer, although this might now be delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic. This funding will help support the delivery of the outline business cases followed by the Full Business Case and initial construction work as the project gears up for the start of full construction in 2024. The goal is to complete all work by the early 2040s.

“The really important thing is that what we have asked for and what we got has been the same,” Wood says. “When we asked for our £52m at the end of 2019-20, that is what we got. This year we have got our funding because we remain on programme and on budget.”

Strategic Outline Case

The refreshed Strategic Outline Case will consider development plans for all seven corridors as well as the hubs and stations. It will also identify the preferred network, support the development of touchpoints with HS2, and contain a number of phasing strategies. “It contains all of the narrative against all five [HM Treasury] green book cases of why this is an investable proposition, why the government could spend up to £39bn in 2015 numbers on this programme of work,” Wood says. “It will amplify the extra capacity and connectivity and also talk about journey times and the number of trains per hour.”

Wood says the current journey time estimates and frequency improvements are based on the 2015 aspirational condition outputs set by northern leaders and were included in the 2018 Northern England Strategic Transport plan. He expects some “substantial” enhancements in the new document. However, achieving the desired journey times on the Manchester - Sheffield corridor is proving difficult because of the restrictions of the current double-track Hope Valley line, which twists and turns through the Peak District National Park.

The intention is for the NPR to deliver each of the proposed upgrades within the £39bn budget, which has a 66% optimism bias. He says tests of several options to achieve the conditional output are underway and the body will work hard to achieve those with its delivery partners. However, if this is not deemed possible, Wood says the emphasis will be on delivering the most transformational railway possible, focused on capacity improvements rather than speed.

NPR was set to announce the winning bidders for “multi-million pound” project management/engineering contracts for early engineering development work as IRJ went to press. NPR is also expected to significantly boost its staff over the next few months as the project ramps up. This early work is set to prioritise corridor upgrades in the east, specifically intrusive surveys on the Leeds - Hull, Leeds - Newcastle, and Hull - Sheffield corridors. Wood says the main cost of these programmes is in the ground - whether this is purchasing land or understanding ground conditions to mitigate future risk - and taking these steps early could save a lot of time down the line.

He adds that these procedures are taking precedence because they are more straightforward than the work needed in the west, which relies on new infrastructure and could require a hybrid bill or development consent order from government, a potentially lengthy process. However, with Johnson requesting that improvements between Manchester and Leeds are prioritised, Wood says the team is looking at how to deliver this element “at pace.”

“What we don’t want is a project that becomes unwieldy because we set our goals in terms of numbers.”

Tim Wood

“What the intrusive surveys are doing is to give us some real tangible answers so we can mitigate the risk quickly,” Wood says. “What we don’t want is a project that becomes unwieldy because we set our goals in terms of numbers, we start to move forward, and then we find in four or five years’ time that a piece of land might be full of mine shafts. We want to know that early so we can have engineering horsepower on it to make sure mitigation measures are in place.”

Another important element of the early work is to identify the electrified railway’s possible power requirements and to support the National Grid to provide sufficient power capacity. Wood says this process could take five, seven or even 10 years depending on what reinforcement is needed to build the bulk supply points.

NPR’s demand for power must be placed within the context of the requirements of HS2 Phase 2b as well as the £2.9bn upgrade of the existing Transpennine route between Manchester and York via Huddersfield and Leeds, which currently includes around 13km of electrification.

The Integrated Rail Plan is the centrepiece of the government’s response to the Oakervee Review’s conclusion that HS2 phase 2b must be considered as part of a single integrated plan alongside NPR, Midlands Engine Rail, and other major NR schemes in the region. The document, which is set to be published by the end of the year, will harness an assessment by the National Infrastructure Commission of how best to integrate each of the projects to deliver benefits more quickly, improve project efficiency and cut costs.

Wood’s hope is that the plan aligns each of the programmes’ objectives and ultimately speeds up delivery. He also hopes that it encourages early collaboration between various partners working on the different projects - whether this is the joint planning of diversions to minimise disruption to existing services as construction takes place, or to promote a closer working relationship with suppliers, something he is keen to foster as director of NPR.

Wood says that before joining TfN he worked for contractors to the rail industry for 23 years, invaluable experience, which puts him in an advantageous position. He says he understands what a contractor wants to know as a project develops and is able to answer a lot of the engineering questions a prospective contractor might have, helping to speed up the process. For example, by addressing the power supply question now rather than in five years’ time, possibly starting work on the new stations early, or supporting NR with infrastructure upgrade work in the next few years that might benefit NPR seven or eight years down the line.

Greater collaboration

“We want to be the most open project, the most collaborative project, particularly with the supply chain and the consultants because quite frankly they have got most of the answers,” Wood says.

Greater collaboration and integration will similarly provide a consistent flow of work. Wood says the British rail sector must finally move away from the “boom and bust approach” to major project development, particularly electrification, witnessed over the past 20 years. This will help to sustain the supply chain. It will also provide consistency of work required to support a new generation of engineers.

Like any project, NPR will only be as good as the people delivering it. Wood urges contractors to send their “A not B or C teams” because the project is moving quickly and they cannot afford to wait for people to catch up. He adds that NPR and the other programmes must support training establishments emerging to serve the country’s future megaprojects. If not, there is a risk that only a small number of competent people will be available, putting pressure on available resources and resulting in wage inflation.

“NPR is for the north and we really want to see it built by the north,” he says. “We need to be out there in the schools and colleges telling the youngsters - because these are the people who are going to be building it and finishing it off - what a fabulous industry we have here. It is not about dirty boots and getting out on site when it is pouring with rain, this is about software engineers of the highest quality creating digital twins, creating the signalling systems of the future. There are an awful lot of digital opportunities for young people here.”

As for what NPR might look like and the benefits it will bring, Wood says HS1, the link from London to Kent and the Channel Tunnel, provides a fitting example. In particular, the housing and business developments which have popped up along the corridor, the resilience of the railway to recent flooding, and the availability and attractiveness of using the service for both commuters and leisure travellers.

“We have been waiting for decades for this kind of investment to come to the railways in the north of England.”

Tim Wood

With the Conservative party keen to hang onto the northern seats which delivered a majority in the December General Election, investment in northern infrastructure is probably more likely now than ever before. Even with the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic, with TfN and NPR working diligently to develop resilient plans, there is a sense of optimism that a once in a generation revitalisation of the north’s railway is just around the corner.

“We have been waiting for decades for this kind of investment to come to the railways in the north of England,” Wood says. “We are not going to lose the opportunity to really amplify the benefits of those programmes coming together and being delivered in a coordinated way, offering value to money for the British taxpayer, and allowing the north of England to really thrive.”

NPR supports railway decarbonisation

WOOD says decarbonisation of the transport network has shot to the top of the political agenda in the last 12-18 months, and NPR is ready to capitalise on this momentum.

As well as delivering an entirely electrified network, Wood is not dismissing the potential of hydrogen and battery rolling stock to offer clean connectivity on branch lines and disused lines which the government is looking to reopen.

He also says that as the developer, NPR must be mindful of implementing the project in an environmentally friendly and carbon-neutral way.

“We know that there is a lot of equipment on the market now that is battery-powered and by the time we start construction we hope that refinements have been done there to improve performance,” Wood says. “That could be something we play with in our tenders, asking contractors and consultants to use electric vehicles; using excavators powered by batteries.”

NPR is aiming to take 64,000 cars off the north’s roads every day. Critical to achieving this is improved first and last mile connectivity to the NPR network. Wood says there is an emphasis on promoting active travel, such as cycling and walking to get to the station, and where this is not possible boosting mass transit options to improve connectivity with stations.

“We are also looking at developing tram-train,” Wood says. “We already have this between Sheffield and Rotherham and we want to develop that further. I think that is a way of still being able to move around at pace but segregated from our mainline services.