Northern Powerhouse Rail isn’t being cut back – it’s being cancelled

Analysis: The project was supposed to deliver a new line between Manchester and Leeds

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Monday 15 November 2021 16:40 GMT
A Transpennine Express train. The government is planning to upgrade existing routes in the north instead of building a new line
A Transpennine Express train. The government is planning to upgrade existing routes in the north instead of building a new line (Getty Images)

The Independent first reported last month that the government was watering down the Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) project – stripping it out to the bare minimum. Now, with an announcement looming on Thursday, it seems that the cuts have gone further, and the new line has been effectively scrapped.

NPR was first announced by George Osborne in 2014 – when he branded it "HS3", the logical next step after HS2. The plan was for a new high speed line running east-west across the North, connecting Manchester with Leeds. Paired with upgrades and new lines linking other cities such as Newcastle, Liverpool, Bradford and Sheffield, it would increase rail capacity and reduce journey times within and across the north.

But on Thursday the government is expected to finally release its much-delayed integrated rail plan spelling out what it will build. The latest reports are that there will be no new line from Manchester to Leeds in it.

This is not just a case of more cut-backs: this line was the "bare minimum" of Northern Powerhouse Rail. If a new line between the north's two most important cities isn't in the plan, Northern Powerhouse Rail has not been cut back – it has been cancelled.

The government is expected to instead announce upgrades to the existing transpennine route – and try to spin this as NPR after all.

Boris Johnson's spokesperson appeared to confirm the reports on Monday – refusing to commit to a new line and only telling reporters: "We are committed to transforming rail connections across the Midlands and the North with shorter journey times and an accelerated timetable for delivery which allows us to bring in real benefits for communities as soon as possible."

Read between the lines, and wait to see what is announced on Thursday. These upgrades will probably be worthwhile, but there are simply no possible upgrades that deliver anywhere near the same improvements in reliability, capacity, and journey times that a new line would.

New line is required to separate intercity journeys from local stopping trains, allowing far more of both. It is also required to improve links to cities like Bradford that are currently under-served by a network based on the human geography of the 19th century. Trying to squeeze more, faster trains onto the same lines will make reliability and overcrowding worse, not better.

However extensive the planned upgrades to existing line might be, they are simply not HS3, or NPR or whatever you want to call the required new line. There is still time for the government to change course, but if the integrated rail plan is as reported, the government cannot claim with any credibility to care about "levelling up" regions outside London, because it is actively cancelling the main projects promised to achieve that.

Paired with the expected cancellation of HS2's eastern leg it will be doing exactly the opposite – deciding that the north and midlands aren't worth investing in. Anything else is just spin.

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