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North franchises ‘will not deliver transformational infrastructure’

The railway across the north needs a “bigger, more expensive, and transformational” solution to fix its historical lack of investment, because what is committed now simply is not enough, rail bosses have said.

The leaders of Transport for the North (TfN) and Northern Rail, David Brown and Alex Hynes, agreed that the next 44 months of the new Northern and TransPennine Express franchises will address this lack of investment, but will not provide the “transformational transport infrastructure that we need to deliver to really make this one of the best regions in the world”.

Speaking at the Northern Powerhouse Conference yesterday, attended by RTM, Hynes added: “Someone described it to me the other day: all we want to do is travel across as fast as we can travel down.

“That implies a journey time between Leeds and Manchester of 30 minutes, which is not going to be delivered by any of the current rail schemes which are funded, which is why we have to work together and say: if we’re going to place a value on the gap in wealth and living standards between the north and the south, then we have to do something big and we have to do something different.”

Asked what this big solution would be, the Northern Rail MD said the north should focus on what outcomes it wants to deliver rather than concentrate on the specifics.

“We shouldn’t talk about tunnels and roads and if it’s 140mph trains or 225mph trains,” he said. “What we should be clear about is what we want the journey times to be, what we want the frequencies to be, and then clever people will design a solution.

“Let’s not fall into a trap, backing a technology or backing a route or backing a mode right now. Let’s decide what we want to deliver.”

While he acknowledged that the north needs to upgrade its current lines to provide better capacity, he said it’s essential to look beyond that to something much larger “so that we can separate the traffic by speed, and then get the best of both worlds”.

“At the moment, we have to compromise all the time,” Hynes added.

Agreeing with him, Brown, who is currently leading the development of a final plan for TfN, said: “We have a lot of full trains at the moment. We’re going to roll out some longer trains and some newer trains, which gives us some breathing space for seven to nine years. By the end of this franchise, they’ll probably be full again.

“You can keep making them a bit quicker and slightly longer, but at some point, that stops – and therefore, if you want to build more capacity between two key points, you’ll need a new line.

“But actually, you can’t pretend that you’re meeting people’s expectations by just taking a minute off of journey times and making trains better. You have to move to something which is bigger and more expensive, but is transformational.”

Freight ‘wedged in’ between passenger trains

The two leaders were speaking as part of a six-man panel comprised of bosses across rail and freight, including representatives from HS2 and Network Rail.

While the lion’s share of the debate focused on passenger services, those present also discussed the poor travel times for freight journeys due to a lack of capacity in the network.

Responding to these concerns, Hynes said: “The fact of the matter is that the network is so full that those freight trains we’re talking about have to be wedged in between passenger trains and take all sorts of ridiculous circuitous routes.

“I don’t think we should defend it – that’s just the reality. It shows the need to invest in more infrastructure. If you can’t move goods and people around your region, then that is going to throttle economic growth.”

Speaking of Northern Rail’s upcoming franchise, which is set to replace the “dreaded Pacer trains” and increase service frequency, Hynes commented: “I’m operating 2,000 more services a week, which is going to make it even more difficult to put more freight trains through.

“That is why despite all these good news in the short and medium terms, we have to help TfN make the case for more, because what’s committed is not enough.”

HS2 Ltd’s development director for phase 2, Paul Griffiths, also participating in the panel, said HS2 will be “all about fixing those problems, but also about starting to put in new infrastructure”.

He continued: “It will be new and modern infrastructure, rather than the old Victorian infrastructure we have now – and that starts to free up capacity and hopefully to provide room for trains and freight.

“HS2 frees up those paths. We start to have an impact on the most congested bits of the West Coast Main Line, for example, which is pretty much full as of today.”

(Top image c. Alex Thorkildsen)


Michael Still   26/02/2016 at 20:56

Whilst working for a Japanese company in Milton Keynes one of our Japanesse employees had to travel to the Lake District to visit a client. When he returned he could not believe how long the journey took him. Comments back to him was we run a vintage railway system not like Japan.

Lutz   29/02/2016 at 09:04

Are the 'peoples' expectations realistic? Are they prepared to pay for the financing of those expectations, or do they still expect people in the south east to carry subsidising them? The return on investments in the South East and London is significantly better than they are within the regional covered by TfN. So what is the expected improvement in productivity arising from these specific investments? Answer that and you get the priorities for the enhancements, however those questions have already been asked, most recently in 2012/2013 so are they asking for more unicorns?

Richard Cousins   01/03/2016 at 10:08

Michael: One of the reasons why it takes so long to travel from MK to the Lake District is that all but one train a day travel via the West Midlands between these two points. This adds roughly an extra 90 minutes to the journey.

Cynick   02/03/2016 at 15:01

Agreed, Richard. Ditto from Watford Junction. I'm not holding my breath that this will become any better upon HS2's opening: we may well lose these as well as being too lightly loaded! What's the betting that the West Midlands services are also reduced through Crewe as "they slow down" the Glasgow services...

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