Former Rail Minister, Stephen Hammond MP explores the future of Great British Rail

A key promise at the General Election of 2019 was that the next Conservative Government would level up the country with the Midlands and the North getting investment in the infrastructure it needed and deserved. Last November the Government announced its plan to deliver what the Prime Minister said in his foreword was ‘the biggest ever government investment in our rail network, redressing decades of underspending in the Midlands and the North’. The Secretary of State for Transport called it ‘a new beginning for the railway network from London to Newcastle and from Birmingham to Leeds’.

There can be little contention that the IRP is ambitious; it commits to building three new high-speed lines, it will electrify or upgrade three existing main lines, it will start work on a West Yorkshire Mass Transit System and it will introduce contactless ticketing across the commuter networks.

The IRP claims that it replaces a previous approach that concentrated too much on ‘showpiece, high-speed lines’ with an alternative approach that concentrates on upgrading the existing system and building new local connectivity. The IRP claims it will double and treble capacity between Leeds and Manchester and Birmingham and Nottingham respectively. It also claims that the benefits of this revised approach will be delivered up to ten years sooner. The IRP suggests that HS2 dedicated track would not reach Leeds until 2041 whereas some Northern Rail Powerhouse schemes would be operable by 2030, with more to come in the early part of that decade. In the IRP there are a lot of positive claims that the new proposals decrease journey times, improves rail services, and that it delivers all or most of the benefits of HS2 Phase 2 and more but at a much reduced cost. Too good to be true?

However, the question with all ambitious infrastructure projects is whether it is deliverable? Having been our spokesman on rail in Opposition for over four years and Rail Minister, I know that there will undoubtedly be a vast number of differing expert voices. Therefore, the success and deliverability of the plan can only be judged on cost and funding, the ability of GBR to meet the engineering challenge, the regional community acceptance and its ‘green’ credentials.

The funding for the project is said to be £54 billion on top of the £42 billion already spent although the £96 billion is the central estimate in a range of £85-104 billion at 2019 base prices. Is this realistic? The document sets out the costing for all the differing parts of the IRP and it is gratifying to note that the Government has sought to learn the lessons of the past (see para 1.9).

However, the pricing is at 2019 base prices so given the supply side constraints and inflation all the projects will, in real terms, cost more than set out. Whilst the Government estimates the cost of completing HS2 Phase One and 2a to be £42.5 billion, there are other industry experts suggesting that the cost, in reality, will be closer to twice that amount. If that were to be so, then the IRP funding envelope would be reduced to closer to £15 billion not £54 billion and would require either more Treasury input or greater private sector involvement.

One of the disappointing aspects of the Williams Shapps Plan is the lack of a role for the private sector in the new national network so it is not obvious that is an available option. Indeed, the Call for Evidence on the Whole Industry Strategy Plan is silent on how the private sector will play a role in the railways of the future despite the Secretary of State specifying that ‘harnessing the best of the private sector’ is a core goal for GBR.

Great British Railways is created by the Williams Shapps Plan as the new guiding mind for the industry, the operator and maintainer of the infrastructure, a significant role in the provision of a reliable customer service and the builder of new infrastructure. GBR is largely Network Rail reconstructed, which failed to meet its maintenance upgrade targets in the last two Control Periods and its ability to deliver projects on time and on cost is at best described as patchy. If GBR is the delivery body for the IRP then it will have to demonstrate a break from the past and commit to new contracting and construction methods. A recent Public Policy Projects report I chaired outlined how these could ensure greater reliability of timing and cost of project delivery. And it’s worth highlighting that the majority of train delays on the network are caused by Network Rail, not the train operators. Something must change if GBR is to succeed.

The other key question is how long it will take to deliver the improvements set out in the Plan, i.e. will 2030 be met. This is a long term plan and some of it may be delivered but not necessarily in the way currently envisaged because circumstances will change. A major upgrade to the East Coast Main Line, especially with new digital signalling and some extra track at certain key points, could arguably render the original easterly leg of HS2 Phase 2b redundant given the step change in journey times and reliability this investment can deliver, which would take out a significant phase of engineering challenges and release an extra £17 billion.

In conclusion the IRP is an ambitious and well thought through set of plans to upgrade the rail network in the Midlands and the North. More than that it represents a key component of the Conservative promise to the UK to level up Britain. If the project can be delivered on time and on or close to budget and the service improvements are deliverable, then it’s a ‘no brainer’. If it isn’t
and they can’t, then it’s a huge gamble. In the end the difference between the outcomes might be the performance of GBR aka NR. The reforms proposed by the Williams Shapps Plan will come to nothing if there is not a major transformation in how Network Rail has historically performed and if that doesn’t occur the cost and deliverability risks to the IRP would be huge.

Stephen Hammond is the Conservative MP for Wimbledon and has been an MP continuously since 5 May 2005. He was Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport from September 2012 to July 2014.