THE Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) is crucial for Britain’s railway infrastructure. Decisions surrounding the construction of Northern Powerhouse Rail, which is planned to be a mixture of upgraded and new lines, electrification of routes including the Leeds - Manchester trans-Pennine route and the construction of the eastern leg of HS2 from the west Midlands to Leeds via Nottinghamshire and Sheffield, are dependent upon what is recommended by the report.  

On February 21 2020 the British government announced the IRP. Its scope was that government, working with HS2 Ltd and local leaders, “will draw up an Integrated Rail Plan for the Midlands and the north which is framed by the government’s commitment to bring forward transformational rail improvements along the HS2 route as quickly as possible.” This was to be informed by an assessment from the National Infrastructure Commission looking at the needs of the north.  

That particular document was published just before Christmas 2020 and forced prime minister Mr Boris Johnson to confirm that the government still intended for the eastern leg of HS2 to go ahead after the NIC appeared to suggest that it would be preferrable to provide various route upgrades initially before returning to the eastern leg.  

IRP scope 

According to the IRP scope of February 21 2020, “the plan will consider the following, based on the NIC’s assessment and taking into account value for money, levelling up, affordability and deliverability considerations:” 

  • how best to integrate HS2 Phase 2b and wider transport plans in the north and Midlands, delivering benefits from investments more quickly. This should include a recommended way forward on scoping, phasing and sequencing delivery of HS2 Phase 2b, Northern Powerhouse Rail, Midlands Rail Hub and other proposed rail investments 
  • how best to reduce cost, including opportunities to reconsider HS2 Phase 2b scope and design standards to prevent over-specification, improve efficiency and reduce costs, drawing on the Phase One lessons learnt work to be led by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, and 
  • how best to deliver rail connectivity with Scotland, in conjunction with the Scottish government. 

It concluded that “the Integrated Rail Plan will be published by the end of the year.” That commitment was made 523 days ago. That means IRP is more than 200 days late. Parliament returns on September 6, one day short of 250 days since IRP should have been published. 

There are mitigating circumstances in that there has been a pandemic, although that was already beginning to have an effect by late February 2020 when the commitment to publication was made. But even then, government has been keen to suggest that the case for HS2 (and rail in general) will not be affected by the outbreak of Covid-19 and the rapid rise in people working from home.  

These projects are not cheap. HS2’s eastern leg is circa £32-45bn, NPR is around £40bn and trans-Pennine electrification will likely be several billions too. But then Johnson has repeatedly said that infrastructure is key to “building back better” as Britain looks to recover from the pandemic. Even before the outbreak of Covid-19 he was keen to suggest that big infrastructure projects were crucial for Britain’s future, especially in a post-Brexit world. 

“We intend to publish the IRP soon,” says HS2 minister Mr Andrew Stephenson. “Given the long-term significance of the IRP, it is important that government carefully considers the priorities and evidence from metro mayors, council leaders, and representatives from the North and Midlands as well as the National Infrastructure Commission’s (NIC) Rail Needs Assessment, ahead of setting out our plans,” he added in his reply to shadow rail minister, Mr Tan Dhesi, on July 26. 

The response from “representatives from the North” could be an eye-opener for government if the comments by mayor of Greater Manchester, Mr Andy Burnham, at the Transport for the North Board Meeting on July 27 are anything to go by.  

Burnham says that in the seven years since the former chancellor of the exchequer, Mr George Osborne, came to central Manchester to promise a “Northern Powerhouse,” there is no evidence of the significant investment, need to sort out the rail network in the north of England.  

“And the question is, how much longer do we carry on in that way before becoming more outspoken and challenge what we think is happening to the north?” Burnham asks. “This is a pretty serious breach of trust if we are about to be sold a much-reduced vision of what we were originally promised. I’m increasingly worried about the failure to produce the IRP, and what that means for us long-term.” 

The same page? 

But it seems not everyone is on the same page. West Midlands mayor, Mr Andy Street, a Conservative party politician, told a cross-party Transport Committee meeting in mid-July that the business case for connecting Midlands towns was “substantially better” than for HS2. He said the eastern leg was not required for “West Midlands business to get what it needs.” 

“Let’s be honest, we all know that there is an incredibly difficult decision that the government has got to make about priorities,” Street told the committee hearing on July 15.“We have to face the reality we now have that difficult decisions have got to be made.”  

Street acknowledged that north of England politicians would be annoyed by his comments but defended his position by saying he was asked about his region.  

Nevertheless, for such a previously staunch supporter of HS2 to make such a comment does nothing to stop speculation that the new railway will not serve  the east Midlands, an area so often neglected by government spending, and Yorkshire, in the near to mid-future.  

What next? 

One theory suggested to IRJ in recent weeks has been that in lieu of the eastern leg, the government will instead approve the electrification of the Midland Main Line (MML) from Market Harborough to Nottingham/Sheffield/Leeds.  

This project was approved in 2012 only to be cancelled five years later by then-secretary of state for transport, Mr Chris Grayling.  

In recent weeks Network Rail (NR) has organised a bidder’s day for companies interested in the MML electrification scheme but has stated that does not mean the work will happen. Furthermore, in the Transport Decarbonisation Plan published by DfT on July 14, there is a government pledge to publish a pipeline of rail electrification schemes “soon” as part of its commitment to decarbonise Britain’s transport network. 

However, no routes are mentioned. Instead, it states that “electrification - a proven, existing technology - is likely to be the main way of decarbonising the majority of the network. 

“Electrification does not merely decarbonise existing rail journeys; it has a clear record of attracting new passengers to rail, the so called “sparks effect.”  
“We will also pursue options for electrifying the remaining diesel pockets of the third-rail network. Further electrification schemes will be announced shortly.” 

NR chief executive, Mr Andrew Haines, has spoken recently of “no regrets” electrification schemes, although he has never identified which, and commentators have routinely taken this to mean, amongst others, the MML project. Infill electrification that can boost freight’s decarbonisation agenda are also thought to be some of the “no regrets” schemes.  

The supply chain 

Prior to the publication of the Decarbonisation Plan, the Railway Industry Association (RIA), a campaign group for the supply chain, urged the publication of three documents: the Rail Network Enhancements Pipeline - a list of upcoming rail upgrades, which the government promised to update annually but has not done for more than 630 days - the Decarbonisation Plan and IRP.  

On July 23, after the British government had risen for summer recess, Caplan bemoaned the lack of certainty the current situation offers to British suppliers. He claims £1.5bn has been cut from the rail enhancements budget as a result of the delay to the publication of the pipeline because funds are returned to government if not used.  

“The delay to the IRP has seen work halted just this week on HS2’s Eastern Leg, and TfN have reported they expect it to delay the delivery of Northern Powerhouse Rail by a year,” Caplan says. 

“We sympathise with the government on the difficult impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on budgets, yet we are simply seeking certainty and visibility on what the government intends to do.”  

Caplan says RIA hopes that by the time government returns in September there will be a clearer plan. IRJ understands that the IRP may not actually be published before the November Spending Review.  

Meanwhile, a source within the British rail supply chain has confirmed that the continued delays has forced the business to look at other opportunities including abroad. More will likely follow.  

Mrs Elaine Clark, chief executive of Rail Forum Midlands, which represents a large cluster of rail businesses and advises on issues including export, training, innovation and policy describes the continuing delay as “deeply disappointing” although not unexpected. 

“Suppliers understand the complex financial juggling act that government is faced with in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic,” Clark says. “However, delaying decisions on infrastructure investment is putting the government's own ‘levelling up’ agenda and Britain’s economic recovery in jeopardy. 

“Investment in infrastructure in the Midlands has lagged behind that in the South for years, our roads are now more congested than pre-pandemic and air quality in our larger cities is poor. Suppliers large and small need visibility of future work and with continued delay there is a risk that we will lose key skills out of the industry and suppliers will turn to other sectors to fill their order books.”  

A DfT spokesperson told IRJ on July 28 that the Integrated Rail Plan will soon outline exactly how major rail projects, including HS2 Phase 2b and other transformational projects such as Northern Powerhouse Rail, “will work together to deliver the reliable train services that passengers across the North and Midlands need and deserve.” 

“The government remains absolutely committed to the NPR programme, as set out in the manifesto,” the spokesperson added. “Once the Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) is published, the government will work closely with Transport for the North to finalise a Strategic Outline Business Case for NPR that is consistent with the recommendations of the IRP, and enables rapid alignment around single route options and an accelerated delivery timetable that will allow us to deliver benefits to communities in the North of England as soon as possible.” 

The government’s response will likely do little to allay the fears surrounding the lack of visibility regarding the future of these mega projects. Companies within the supply chain must make decisions on recruitment, training and procurement that rely on such schemes, and delays of more than 200 days are hardly welcome in this extraordinarily challenging time. 

But, it must be considered that government is having to recalculate budgets as a result of the pandemic, and the drop in passenger numbers on Britain’s railways could be a factor in any decision, although passenger levels are steadily increasing. It’s also worth remembering that more than £10bn has been spent ensuring the existing railway survived through the past 15 months – money that was never planned to be spent in such a way. 

Nevertheless, the barrage of comments about ‘levelling up’ and ‘building back better’ could come back to haunt the Conservative party should such schemes not go ahead as those who voted for the Tories in the last general election see promises not being kept. 

Whatever happens in the next few weeks and months, any further delays to the IRP will continue to cause concern for all those involved in the projects whose future rests on the publication of the plan. Its publication cannot come soon enough.