A draft 30-year Strategic Transport Plan for northern England was published by Transport for the North (TfN), marking the start of a 13-week consultation on the proposals, which include the first detailed vision for the Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) link between the region’s six largest cities - Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Hull, and Newcastle- upon-Tyne.

The plan aims to tackle the economic imbalance between northern and southern England through a range of measures, which could deliver a £100bn economic boost and 850,000 new jobs by 2050.

According to the strategy, total demand for rail travel in the region is expected to rise from 178 million journeys a year to around 760 million trips by 2050. A broad range of measures is therefore proposed to increase capacity and reduce journey times.

Manchester PiccadillyThe report highlights a lack of east-west connectivity across the Pennines, which is hindering links between the north east and the north west. Between the East Midlands in the south and central Scotland, TfN says there is only one “high-standard” east-west transport link across the Pennines - the M62 highway, which connects Hull with Leeds, Huddersfield, Manchester and Liverpool. Northern England has an extensive rail network with around 500 stations, but with poor journey times and inadequate rolling stock in many areas, rail has a market share of just 3.7%.

Improvements to existing rail infrastructure are currently being implemented as part of Network Rail’s Great North Rail Project, which seeks to deliver journey time, capacity, and reliability benefits. Key projects include the North West electrification programme, Manchester’s Ordsall Curve, which opened in December 2017, and the Trans-Pennine Route Upgrade. TfN says it is seeking a firm commitment from the government to deliver the latter project, which has fallen foul of cost overruns in Network Rail’s 2015-2019 enhancement programme, with the aim of addressing overcrowding and meeting short-term demand for more capacity.

Alongside infrastructure improvements, the Northern and TransPennine Express franchises are investing in new rolling stock to enable the operation of longer and more frequent trains while improving the onboard experience for passengers and enabling the withdrawal of the life-expired Pacer DMU fleet. Urban rail fleets are also being renewed. Liverpool is investing £460m in 52 new EMUs for the Merseyrail network, while the government has allocated £337m to fund the replacement of the train fleet on the Tyne & Wear Metro network in Newcastle, Gateshead and Sunderland.

Looking further ahead, TfN identifies seven “corridors of opportunity” across the north, development of which is considered essential to achieve the core aims of the plan - improving access to jobs, making travel easier, supporting businesses, and improving the movement of freight across the region.

Alongside the corridors proposals, TfN outlines its emerging vision for NPR, as a “rapid, reliable, and resilient” rail network connecting Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Hull and Newcastle with a combination of new and upgraded infrastructure. NPR would bring more than 1.3 million people within an hour of four or more major northern cities, compared with less than 10,000 people today.

NPR will include:

  • a new line linking Liverpool and Warrington with the High Speed 2 (HS2) Manchester Spur
  • capacity at Manchester Piccadilly for around eight through services per hour
  • a new Trans-Pennine line connecting Manchester and Leeds via Bradford
  • significant upgrades along the corridor of the existing Hope Valley Line from Sheffield to Manchester via Stockport
  • Leeds - Sheffield delivered through HS2 Phase 2B and upgrading the route from Sheffield
  • Leeds - Newcastle via the HS2 junction and upgrades to the East Coast Main Line, and
  • significant upgrading of the existing Leeds - Selby - Hull and Sheffield - Doncaster - Hull lines.

NPR could reduce the Liverpool Lime Street - Manchester Piccadilly journey time from around 50 minutes to 28 minutes, while Sheffield - Leeds could be cut from 41 minutes to 26 minutes. Manchester - Leeds journey times would be “no more than 30 minutes” including a stop at Bradford, compared with 49 minutes for the fastest services today.

TfN says further work is underway to develop options and a business case for a new line or significant upgrades between Manchester and Sheffield, and to refine options for the overall network.

TfN and the Department for Transport (DfT) will complete a strategic outline business case for NPR by the end of this year, which would enable design work to begin on each corridor.

Long-term strategy

Alongside the Strategic Transport Plan, TfN is publishing an updated Long-Term Rail Strategy for the North, which outlines priorities for investment in new infrastructure and upgrades of existing lines, as well as harnessing new technologies.

The strategy will develop around five key themes:

  • Connectivity: delivering a step change in connectivity including frequency and journey time improvements, combined with better integration of services
  • Capacity: providing longer trains and additional services to meet existing and future passenger demand, with improvements to the infrastructure and signalling to accommodate more trains
  • Customer: developing a passenger network that is easy to navigate, accessible and predictable, with consistent information available before and throughout journeys
  • Community: supporting the social fabric of the communities served by the railway and providing access to employment, training, education and leisure activities, and
  • Cost-effectiveness: growing revenue and minimising the unit cost of operating and maintaining the North’s railway without compromising the quality of the services offered.

In the short-term, TfN says it is looking to secure the benefits of current infrastructure enhancements, including full delivery of Northern and TransPennine Express franchise commitments. In the medium- and longer-term, it calls on infrastructure manager Network Rail to complete delivery of the committed enhancement programme and the Great North Rail Project (including the Trans-Pennine Route Upgrade), prepare the conventional network for the arrival of HS2, and identify and develop interventions that will be needed in the future.

With the Northern and TransPennine franchises making significant investment in new trains, TfN is eager to ensure the benefits of these enhancements are fully realised with infrastructure that enables the latest trains to perform to their full capability.

TfN argues that unless infrastructure improvements are delivered, journey times between key centres will remain uncompetitive with other modes. “Without sustained investment, constraints that remain on the network will force potential trade-offs between connectivity, capacity and punctuality,” it states. “These bottlenecks must not erode benefits and prevent growth and modal shift by compromising performance, or preclude the introduction of new or optimised passenger and freight services.”

In addition to ensuring the completion of committed enhancements, TfN is developing an initial long-term investment programme, which will ultimately develop into a pipeline of projects which will deliver the outputs of the Strategic Transport Plan and the rail strategy over the next 30 years. TfN will then seek the funding required to deliver these enhancements.