Simon Kendler, a regional rail Freight Manager, explores the various possible answers
There is nothing like a government transport paper to incite differing opinions over its contents and benefits. 2021 was a bumper year for such documents with the publication of the Williams Shapps Plan for Rail in May, the Transport Decarbonisation Plan in July, and the much delayed Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) in November.
What was particularly interesting was the reaction to the IRP and the reaction to the reaction that appears to have divided into two distinct camps. One is that the IRP is severely deficient, and the other is that the IRP is a pragmatic and equally beneficial approach to rail investment. But which reaction is more warranted is an important question.
The IRP is notable for some welcome transport investment including the almost full electrification of the Midland Main Line or MML (it’s not full unless the Corby diversion and Sheffield to Moorthorpe sections are also electrified), a re-commitment to delivering the full Transpennine Route Upgrade (TRU) and some new sections of high-speed line from Birmingham to East Midlands Parkway (where it will join the MML) and from Liverpool to Manchester and under the Pennines.
Whilst these are welcome commitments, it must be recognised what the IRP has cut. It has cut the full Eastern leg of High Speed 2 (HS2) from Birmingham to Toton, Sheffield, Leeds and York (truncating it to East Midlands Parkway). It has also cut around half of Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) from the Pennines to Leeds. This has left significant question marks around how intercity services will reach Leeds. £100 million (although it confusingly also says £200 million in places) has been promised to look into this and to investigate how to build a West Yorkshire metro without much detail on what that actually means (or getting on with it given how much work on this has already been done).
The strength of feeling across northern regions, particularly in the ‘red wall’ seats, has been fierce and overall strongly critical. West Yorkshire Mayor Tracy Brabin said in response to the IRP that it will leave communities ‘feeling betrayed’ and that, ‘the plan will limit the growth and potential of West Yorkshire for many decades to come’. Meanwhile recently appointed chair of Transport for the North (TfN) Sir Patrick McLoughlin described the IRP as being ‘against the best interests of people in the North’.
But how can this be in the face of £96 billion of committed investment by government in the Midlands and the North hailed by the Department for Transport (DfT) as the ‘biggest ever public investment in Britain’s rail network’?
First we must tackle some pernicious myths about government investment. One: £96 billion is a lot of money and a lot for government to commit in the current economic climate.
This claim isn’t convincing when considering, first and foremost, that the transport sector is the largest polluting sector in the UK accounting for over 30 per cent of total UK Greenhouse Gas emissions (GHGe). 27 per cent of this comes from the road sector. Modal shift to public and active transport is a climate necessity and given how late we are reacting, we must invest boldly and swiftly. This is even more stark in the context of Office for National Statistics (ONS) article published in November 2021 that stated that 75 per cent of British adults said they were worried about the impacts of climate change.
Transport is barely one per cent of UK annual government spending. Does it sound so generous now? What is the price of not tackling climate change and not reducing emissions? Given the urgency of the situation, £96bn is beginning to sound like a significant underspend even if the DfT are hailing it the largest ever public investment in Britain’s rail network.
Two: government borrowing is at record levels and government debt is bad so cuts had to be made.
It is true that government borrowing is high, including the millions poured into franchised Train Operating Companies to keep them going through the pandemic and lockdowns, but we’d be in a much worse place without it! Imagine the turmoil across society without the rapid government investment in furlough schemes, businesses, transport and the NHS since March 2020.
Furthermore, the reality is, and contrary to what you may hear, the national deficit is actually a crucial and necessary part of our national economy. It is important to remember that government spending is not akin to household finances and unlike you and I, the government has its own bank (the Bank of England) that legally has to create debt (otherwise known as money) when government instructs it to do so. And unlike you and I when paying bills or paying back loans, the government can essentially cancel its debt as and when it needs to. That’s because national debt isn’t debt. Rather it’s the future taxable income of government that it has decided not to claim back yet (through taxes) that’s otherwise circling around, keeping the economy going. And it’s this government spending that creates money that keeps our public sector and our vital public services going.
EMR HST 43274 departs Leicester in May 2021
So now that we’ve established that the national deficit is essentially our national money supply of government created money which has to exist to keep the economy going, perhaps we can stop pretending it’s a bad thing.
Finally, the concept of the ‘multiplier’ effect also means that government investment in transport has a multitude of economic benefits. The multiplier measures how much economic activity results from additional government spend. The idea is that for every £1 of additional investment in beneficial sectors such as transport, it creates increased economic benefit through job creation, in both construction and later in operations. Furthermore, this investment increases skills and access to employment through improved connectivity. These extra pounds are also taxed as they get spent around the economy, subsequently increasing earnings and government revenues.
On the other hand, when transport schemes are assessed by government through HM Treasury’s Green Book, these wider economic benefits are not captured. The design of these assessment guidelines obscures much of the benefits of transport investment, hobbling much needed schemes before a spade is turned and kicking the investment can down the road. This does not inspire confidence in the engineering, construction or rail sectors to invest in jobs and skills and thus hampers economic development.
So does record government borrowing and increasing national deficit provide good reasons for cutting back on promised transport investments for communities in the Midlands and the North? Absolutely not! Indeed the opposite is true which means we can dispel this myth that cuts to proposed investment are to be welcomed when in fact government should be pulling out all the
stops to drive investment.
Having established that the economic climate is in fact ripe for major transport investment, now we can examine the substance of the actual plan. Those drafting the IRP knew that any cuts to the original plan had to be assuaged somehow. Th e main ways in which this was achieved was by committing to the full TRU plan, electrification of the Midland Main Line and upgrading of the East Coast Main Line (ECML).
That’s not to say these are bad things but let’s be absolutely clear on how these plans compare. The TRU should always have been a full upgrade to provide maximum capacity for local, regional and freight services between Manchester and Leeds. The MML electrification was cancelled in 2017 not forgetting that some upgrades were already going to happen with HS2 East to connect Toton’s East Midlands Hub and Sheffield. And the suggested ECML upgrades will entrench and worsen the existing issues we have on this part of the network.
Freightliner Class 70, 70002 awaits departure from Southampton Maritime in May 2021
Missing these points is also missing the point of what HS2 is fundamentally for. Th e purpose of HS2 is to provide a new trunk main line for the fastest intercity services. That’s because when these trains run on the existing network (as they do now) they eat up the most capacity (just look at the West Coast Main Line or WCML).
Remove these services onto their own line and a once in a generation opportunity presents itself to recast timetables on the existing network to take advantage. These timetables would be built around where HS2 services will still present onto the existing network (i.e. north of Wigan) and then elsewhere about providing frequent, reliable local and regional passenger services and regular paths for freight traffic with some resilience for perturbation. And this points to the most important aspect of the full HS2/NPR plans. The Eastern Leg of HS2 is the most beneficial part of the whole HS2 scheme. Likewise the key section of NPR is the now axed section from Manchester to Leeds. That’s because, as you can see from the map, the Eastern leg uses one trunk route to relieve both the MML and the ECML at the same time.
The service plan for the Eastern leg was to provide intercity connections from London and Birmingham to the East Midlands, Sheffield, Leeds, York and Newcastle. This would directly replace Cross Country flows from Birmingham as well as MML express paths from St Pancras to Nottingham, Derby, Chesterfield and Sheffield. At the same time HS2 eastern services would supplant
King’s Cross to Leeds, York and Newcastle services (Edinburgh services would already be connected via the western leg).
That means replacing two trains per hour per direction (tphpd) between Birmingham and the North East, four tphpd from St Pancras and around five tphpd from King’s Cross. So that’s eleven intercity train paths per direction along the MML & ECML corridors blasting past smaller stations at the expense of local, regional and freight services. It is worth bearing in mind that the MML corridor is also one of the key intermodal corridors. Meanwhile, freight customers are increasingly eager to shift more product to rail but are finding capacity constraints, even on a covid-impacted railway.
The IRP claims that destinations served by the MML such as Leicester, Loughborough, Derby and Nottingham will benefit more than under the previous plans due to electrification and upgrades.
Yes, under IRP trains will be able to run directly from Birmingham and London to Nottingham, Derby and Sheffield without changing at the Toton-based East Midlands Hub. However, the original plans meant that new, fast, frequent regional services designed to link these cities with the HS2 hub would’ve improved journey times and, crucially, increased MML capacity.
LNER, Intercity-liveried Class 91, 91119 arrives into London King’s Cross in November 2018
Taking Loughborough as an example, under the previous plans passengers from Loughborough would have had more MML intercity services stopping, allowing improved connectivity to Leicester, East Midlands Hub, Derby and Nottingham. Existing services to London would’ve been more frequent but slower. Whilst this could be spun as a negative, in fact it is a positive. More frequent, regular pattern services stopping at regional destinations improves connectivity and access to jobs. Meanwhile, those passengers for London would travel to East Midlands Hub in around ten minutes, wait a maximum of 15 minutes for a London HS2 service and reach London 52 minutes later or indeed Birmingham 20 minutes later. How do these compare?
Today the fastest London to Loughborough journey time is around 1 hour ten minutes. Via HS2 Eastern leg the journey would have also taken around 1 hour ten minutes. Th e IRP promises a
slight improvement on the former whilst impacting capacity and stifling connectivity. Even electrification and improved signalling cannot make up for this shortfall.
Remembering that Britain and its economy is not all about what happens within the M25 we must recognise the significance of improved local and regional connectivity. It is transport investment such as HS2 East and NPR that will help drive modal shift and provide transformational economic benefits for areas like the East Midlands and West Yorkshire.
As a further example, via HS2 East, Loughborough to Birmingham could’ve been achieved in less than 40 minutes compared with the 90 minutes it takes currently. A clear boost for East Midlands plc., an area that’s traditionally suffered the lowest transport spend per head for decades.
The IRP also claims that the ECML can be upgraded and services speeded up through a mixture of line speed upgrades, digital signalling, power supply upgrades, longer trains and the removal of bottlenecks such as flat junctions. It states that: ‘DfT analysis shows it is unlikely HS2 would be able to serve York and North East England as previously promised without compromising existing services’. Furthermore, it goes on to claim that journey time reductions of 15 minutes between London and York, 25 minutes to Newcastle and 20 minutes to Leeds can be made. Th ese claims are
interesting to say the least.
So what infrastructure interventions could be made along the ECML to reduce journey times? Longer trains and power supply upgrades are welcome but the main issues here are reliance on line speed improvements, digital signalling and bottleneck removal to reduce journey times. Digital signalling (in reality European Train Control System or ETCS Level 2 already being installed on the southern end of the ECML) is often touted as the harbinger of chunky capacity improvements. However, when the marketing meets the mixed-traffic main line the capacity gains are more likely minimal. The revival of proposals for 140mph running (originally developed in the 1980s for the Intercity225s) has already been proven to make minimal journey time improvements whilst further reducing capacity as described by the likes of Roger Ford and William Barter. And finally, the thorny problem of bottlenecks of which the ECML has many. The 2-track sections at Welwyn, Huntingdon, Stoke Tunnel and that between Grantham and Doncaster that also includes the Newark flat crossing are significant constraints. Welwyn, Huntingdon and Newark are particularly
difficult and whilst the latter are mentioned, the 2 ½ mile viaduct plus tunnel section at Welwyn is ominous by its omission.
The other key issue to highlight is the one already exposed recently by the proposed May 2022 (now delayed to May 2023) timetable consultations. Again, forensic analysis by industry commentators exposed that to improve headline intercity journey times along the ECML, intra-regional connections, such as those between Doncaster and Peterborough, would be lost. This would
leave towns like Grantham, Newark and Retford unable to use the train to get to the adjacent station/town as trains would only be able to stop at one of those locations to keep longer distance journey times down.
It is under these realities that a forensic eye should be cast over the IRP as the claims and promises it is making appear to be unrealistic at best, and less beneficial at worst. Again when considering that the construction of HS2 is generally away from the existing network, except at the interfaces and key stations, it is clear that trying to bring even 50 per cent of HS2 East’s benefits to the MML and ECMLs will result in major disruption, cost and environmental impact for less benefit. Is this really a plan worth investing in, let alone celebrating?
Moreover, heading north across the Pennines, the pessimism is palpable. NPR was expected to bring down journey times between Manchester and Leeds to a mere 25 minutes against today’s best at 45 minutes whilst serving Bradford city centre directly. Instead, Bradford will get the line from Interchange to Leeds electrified and journey times reduced to twelve minutes, a saving of six minutes and seemingly at the expense of the intermediate stations at New Pudsey and Bramley. This proposal also appears to ignore the fact that the majority of services on this line go through Bradford and Leeds to other destinations.
Bradford, like its West Yorkshire neighbours in Leeds, are treated as second-class citizens when it comes to transport provision. It is aways forgotten that 675,000 people live within ten kilometres of Bradford which is more than Bordeaux, more than Geneva and more than Strasbourg. Yet these European cities enjoy excellent public transport links in the form of trams, frequent local rail services and high speed connections to other major cities. Tracy Brabin’s strong words to Grant Shapps are now starting to make sense.
So where does this leave the IRP? In summary, the scaling back of the original plans are questionable and reduce the overall benefits of planned investment. Don’t believe me. These are the conclusions of the Mott McDonald and DfT internal assessments of the IRP. The objectives of the IRP are confused and contradictory and seemingly forget what the previous plans were for without consulting the communities who would be most impacted by these changes.
The IRP promises welcome investment on the existing rail network. But instead of complimenting the wider improvements that would come with delivery of the full HS2 plan and NPR, the reduced benefits are being sold as better than the previous plan. Did we need to save money on transport investment in the wake of the pandemic and its economic impacts? No. Government
investment spreads economic benefits and government borrowing doesn’t produce an unsustainable debt burden because that’s not how national economics works.
The IRP leaves Leeds in the lurch with no clear plan for how services will reach the city, how they will be accommodated and does this off the back of somewhat flimsy promises about improving ECML journey times. The solution for services into Manchester seems to rely on a dead-end HS2 terminus and claims that such termini are good, actually. This is despite the fact that across the Channel in Antwerp, Berlin and Stuttgart great eff orts have been made to convert dead-end termini into through stations as they are far more efficient.
Promises of improved journey times and better services for the towns, cities and communities of the Midlands and the north are hard to believe when these plans are so confused. Th e IRP also claims that these schemes will be delivered quicker as a result of the IRP. Again, it’s hard to believe this will be the case when there are so many unanswered questions.
One question that can’t be avoided is how we tackle climate change. The UK government has mandated targets of reaching net zero by 2050. The reality is that this can only be achieved by the
railway playing its part in carrying 50 per cent more people and 50 per cent more freight than it does today, in just 28 years. The pandemic has certainly created major changes in travel demand but remember that road use has been at 100 per cent and higher of pre-pandemic use since the country started to emerge out of the first lockdown. Travel demand hasn’t disappeared, it has changed and rail has to be part of that. Great British Railways (GBR) is being developed with a legally mandated freight growth target. This can only be achieved via enhancements to Britain’s rail network. Fortunately, the strength of feeling has been noticed by the DfT and HM Treasury with their strong rebuttals to the criticism. Hopefully, there is still time to re-think transport investment and re-commit to more widespread and more beneficial investment in the rail network of the Midlands and the north. Building the full Y-HS2 and NPR networks would be a start, followed by
a rolling programme of electrification along major freight corridors and urban networks. This should be concurrent with the development of alternative traction where appropriate whilst urban areas get major developments in light rail, electric buses and active transport infrastructure that links into the rail network. Getting more people onto trains and more freight off the roads and onto rail would make for an integrated plan for transport that might be welcomed more broadly across the Midlands and the North.
Simon Kendler is a Freight Manager and an active member of the Young Rail Professionals. The views expressed in this article are his personal opinion and do not reflect the views of Network Rail or Young Rail Professionals. You can follow Simon on Twitter: @SimonZev