Background on rail plans in the north of England


High Speed Rail 2 (HS2) is a project which originally planned to deliver a new high-speed rail line from London to Manchester and Leeds, via Birmingham. It is being delivered in three phases, with parliamentary approval for phase 1 and phase 2a already given through two hybrid bills:

However, there had been uncertainty over the final phase (2b) of the project, which would be made up of an eastern leg (from the West Midlands to Leeds) and a western leg (from Crewe to Manchester). The 2021 Queen’s Speech included proposals for a High-Speed Rail (Crewe to Manchester) Bill but did not mention the eastern leg.

Northern Powerhouse Rail

There have been various proposals to upgrade rail networks in the north of England in recent years. In 2014, the Coalition Government gave its backing to a high-speed rail link (HS3) that would connect northern cities. Following this, Transport for the North (TfN), a sub-national transport body, developed proposals for what is known as Northern Powerhouse Rail. In March 2021, TfN published advice for the Government on its preferred option for network improvements. It said that it had looked at over 130 different options before reaching its conclusion.

Recent developments

In August 2019, the Government announced an independent review that would look at whether and how HS2 should proceed. The Oakervee Review reported in February 2020. It concluded that the future of HS2 needed to be considered as part of an integrated rail plan. Following this, in February 2020 Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the House of Commons that the cabinet had “given high-speed rail the green signal”. He said it would improve capacity and connectivity:

The review recently conducted by Douglas Oakervee, copies of which will be placed in the Library of the House, leaves no doubt of the clinching case for high-speed rail: a vast increase in capacity, with hundreds of thousands of extra seats, making it much easier for travellers to move up and down our long, narrow country. That means faster journey times.

Mr Johnson announced that he would be appointing a minister to oversee the project and would change how HS2 Ltd was managed. He also said that before “designs are finalised and legislation is introduced”, the Government would present an integrated rail plan. To inform this, he said he would ask the National Infrastructure Commission to carry out an assessment of the rail needs in the Midlands and the north of England.

On 15 December 2020, the National Infrastructure Commission published its final report. It presented the Government with “a menu of options for a programme of rail investment in the Midlands and the north, using three different illustrative budget options”. It said that the Government “should commit to an affordable, deliverable, fully costed pipeline of core investments to improve rail in the Midlands and the north”.

The Integrated Rail Plan

On 18 November 2021, the Government published the Integrated Rail Plan for the North and Midlands (IRP). In a statement to the House of Commons announcing the IRP, Grant Shapps, the Secretary of State for Transport, said that the plans would “benefit eight of the 10 busiest rail corridors across the north and the Midlands, providing faster journeys, increased capacity and more frequent services up to 10 years sooner than previously planned”. He estimated that the programme would cost £96 billion, stating that this was “the single largest rail investment ever made by a UK government”. He also labelled it “the biggest single act of levelling up of any government in history”.

In the plan, the Government described its proposals as a blueprint for the development of train services in the named regions. It explained that the plan set out how the Government would “take forward and bring together” the development of HS2, Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR), the Midlands Rail Hub (MRH) and other major Network Rail schemes and programmes for the north and Midlands over the period to 2050.

Highlighting the importance of the plan and the need for the right decisions to be made, the Government set out the following strategic objectives. It said these had guided the IRP, were consistent with its overall priorities and related to other work on infrastructure and rail:

  • improving transport for users by enhancing capacity and connectivity to meet long-term rail demand and make journeys faster, easier and more reliable;
  • reducing environmental impact by supporting decarbonisation of the rail network, and accelerating modal shift for passengers and goods;
  • growing and levelling up the economy by creating opportunities for skills, employment, agglomeration and regeneration; and
  • ensuring value for the taxpayer through efficient delivery of rail infrastructure, learning lessons from past projects to ensure that schemes are delivered effectively.

Core projects

Summarising the core projects included in the plan, the Government said that it would build three new high-speed lines:

  • HS2 from Crewe to Manchester;
  • HS2 East from the West Midlands to East Midlands Parkway; and
  • NPR between Warrington, Manchester and Yorkshire.

It said that it would also electrify and/or upgrade three existing main lines, outlining plans to fully electrify and upgrade the Transpennine Main Line between Manchester, Leeds and York and the Midland Main Line between London St Pancras, the east Midlands and Sheffield. It also said it would upgrade and speed up the East Coast Main Line (ECML).

In addition, the Government said the plan would “improve local services, integrate them properly with HS2 and NPR, and ensure benefits for places on the existing lines”. Listing the work involved in this, the Government explained it would:

  • start work on the new West Yorkshire Mass Transit System;
  • introduce London-style contactless ticketing across the commuter networks of the Midlands and north;
  • improve long-distance connections with HS2 and progress work on options to complete the MRH;
  • further invest in local transport at Toton and in the east Midlands;
  • protect and improve services on the existing main lines; and
  • complete planned upgrades on the Hope Valley Line.

These plans differ to the original proposals for HS2 and NPR. The proposed eastern leg of HS2 has been reduced and will no longer extend to Leeds, with the IRP saying that the Government would “look at the most effective way to run HS2 trains to Leeds”. The NPR has been downgraded, with the plans delivered through a combination of new track and upgrades to existing infrastructure, rather than an entirely new line.

In his statement to the House of Commons, Mr Shapps said that under the original plans the HS2 track would not have reached the east Midlands and the north until the early 2040s. He said that a rethink was needed to ensure that “the project would deliver as soon as possible for the regions that it served”.

Reaction to the Integrated Rail Plan

Reacting to the announcement, a variety of individuals and organisations expressed concerns about the IRP. For example, various Labour politicians were critical of the plans. Writing in the Yorkshire Post on the day of the announcement, Leader of the Opposition Keir Starmer said that Mr Johnson had “derailed the prospect of giving the north the transport system it deserves”. In addition, the Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, labelled the plans a ‘Championship’ rather than a ‘Premier League’ option.

Also reacting to the announcement, the TfN board wrote to Mr Shapps highlighting that the proposals were not its preferred option and expressing its “collective disappointment and dismay”. It called on Mr Shapps to meet with them and explore the “funding options for the delivery of the preferred Northern Powerhouse Rail”. An editorial in the Times argued that the decision was both questionable in terms of economics and politics. It said that the plans left the Government open to accusations that it had broken a promise made many times.

Some local authorities were also critical. Warrington Council highlighted that while the plans were positive for certain areas, it had concerns about the plan as a whole. Meanwhile the leader of Bradford Council, Susan Hinchcliffe, said that “the Government has just missed a golden opportunity” by not connecting Bradford.

Andy Bagnall, director general of the Rail Delivery Group, which represents independent train operators, also criticised the plans. He said:

While millions of people will benefit from this major investment in boosting connectivity between major cities in the north of England and the Midlands, leaving out key pieces of the jigsaw will inevitably hold back the ability for the railways to power the levelling up agenda and the drive to net zero.

Darren Caplan, chief executive of the Railway Industry Association, welcomed the end of uncertainty the plans gave. However, he also said that while it was positive to see confirmation of some local and regional projects and the speed at which the Government aimed to deliver them, “it is difficult to see this IRP as anything other than a piecemeal approach to national strategic railway infrastructure development, given the abandonment of HS2 eastern leg and the scaling back of Northern Powerhouse Rail”.

Others welcomed the announcement. Sir John Peace, chair of Midlands Connect, which researches, develops and progresses transport projects, said:

Today’s announcement gives businesses and local leaders the reassurance they’ve been waiting for—that HS2 is coming to the East Midlands. Although these plans are different in some respects to what we’d expected, there are a lot of positives in here and lots of things to be excited about.

Nottinghamshire County Council leader and Conservative MP for Mansfield Ben Bradley was also positive. Labelling the announcement “fantastic news”, he said that the IRP will mean “more jobs, more money coming in, more and better infrastructure, as well as opportunities for training, skills and apprenticeships”. He also argued that the IRP would play “a massive part in levelling up our country”. In addition, Sandra Haith, a member of an anti-HS2 campaign group, welcomed the plan, saying she was “absolutely elated”.

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Cover image from Freepik.