How Northern Powerhouse Rail is gaining momentum

There has already been great progress in developing and improving pan-northern transport, but future prospects for growth will be even more transformational, argues Henri Murison, director of Northern Powerhouse Partnership.

Commuters struggling to get to work, families choosing to drive rather than take the train, and visitors not able to explore enough of the north’s vibrant cities. We now have an opportunity to address these challenges and unlock a travel to work area to bring the same access for talent to reach high-quality jobs as London currently enjoys. The people, businesses and civic leaders of the Northern Powerhouse are calling for their chance to close the £7,000 gap in incomes northerners have. Rebalancing our economy for the greater good.

The Transport for the North (TfN) Strategic Transport Plan, led by its chair John Cridland and chief executive Barry White, is, of course, primarily focused on transport. But it is much more than that; it is based on economic corridors and opportunities, and therefore integral to the Northern Powerhouse agenda. Its aspirations include international as well as freight connectivity to the world, underpinned by enhanced connectivity provided by Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR). This scheme is not about improving rail services to achieve traditional journey time savings as an end in themselves – as these schemes in the past were assessed. That is why the commitments of the chief secretary of the Treasury, Liz Truss MP, to a Green Book based on productivity at the ‘Investing in Britain’ event supported by Arcadis recently is so important to this major proposal, and the many others across infrastructure and industrial strategy investment opportunities which will be considered by government.

We are already seeing progress, and confidence, with Siemens committing to build its new UK train factory in Goole (more on p37). This will create up to 1,700 jobs there and in the supply chain here in the Northern Powerhouse, with the capacity to build the trains to use the improved infrastructure based on digital railways and wider innovation. This is not all about delivery in a decade of new lines – it is a network to enhance connectivity across the north. Much of this is about route upgrade, maximising opportunities today as well as investing strategically to achieve long-term goals incrementally and through existing committed infrastructure wherever possible – such as between Sheffield and Manchester on the Hope Valley line to increase frequency on this vital but badly underserved link. Between Leeds and Manchester the new franchise commitments will double the number of seats. The TransPennine route upgrade in the early part of the next decade will grow the market to then start to help change the economy of the north by the time the new line element, across the Pennines east through Bradford to the west, will be completed.

Support from businesses

NPR would be transformational for business in the north, helping drive productivity and attracting 850,000 new jobs in the region by 2050. The current poor connectivity in the north is a major obstacle to encouraging companies from growing in the region and is a barrier to inward investment. This crucial, pan-northern infrastructure of NPR would significantly cut journey times.

In February, the Northern Powerhouse All Party Parliamentary Group heard from leading voices: our metro mayors and civic leaders as well as vice chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, Lord Jim O’Neill. These plans are not just ideals put forward by politicians but are backed by key leaders from the business world too; by Mace’s Steve Gillingham speaking that day, for example, and supported by many others.

Jessica Bowles, director of strategy at Bruntwood, said: “Securing government support for delivering new infrastructure – like the redesign of Manchester Piccadilly to accommodate high-speed trains, a new 30-minute connection between Leeds and Manchester via Bradford, and a new station in Liverpool,  which alongside HS2 would create 20,000 new jobs – is vital, and I urge all northern businesses to endorse this campaign.”

Jonathan Moore, Northern Powerhouse city region executive at Arcadis, added: “NPR will also play a pivotal role in turning the heads of businesses and creating much-needed jobs across the region. It is essential that we focus on making the nation’s economy less dependent on the south east, instead helping to accelerate balanced growth across the country by realising new sources of competitive advantage for the north.”

Successes from city to city

Currently in Bradford, led by Cllr Susan Hinchcliffe and working in close partnership with their neighbours, 75% of the 45,000 commuters between Leeds and Bradford travel by car every day. Bradford is also the UK’s youngest city, predicted by 2024 to be home to 24,000 more people of the working age. Journey times, capacity and reliability, as well as wider transport difficulties locally, are inhibiting young people from getting jobs; current connections are slow, with it taking at least an hour to Manchester and almost three hours to London. Just building NPR to Leeds, bringing those cities closer together than ever before, will bring significant benefits if aligned with the opening of HS2 to Leeds and Sheffield (more on p38).

Establishing an NPR station in Liverpool alongside HS2 would create 20,000 new jobs and £703m towards the economy. This must be delivered at the same time as HS2; there is no sense in going back to the same stretches of track when, from Crewe and Manchester Airport’s new station, it will be possible to build on from the existing committed new line being constructed by HS2 Ltd. Liverpool also hosted the rail minister, Jo Johnson, earlier this month to discuss the new statutory powers of TfN. Johnson called upon northern leaders to “drive forward vital transport projects” such as NPR after he attended the first meeting since TfN was legally established as England’s first subnational transport body (more on p20).

TfN gaining statutory powers is a crucial step in delivering a fit-for-purpose transport network in the Northern Powerhouse, a step-change of investment giving our families and communities the connectivity they deserve to access the jobs of the future and the leisure opportunities across our great towns and cities. This could be a game-changer for the north, and it is thanks to our civic leaders from across the region and their willingness to work with business that we have got this far. We need to build on this work if we are to win the case to make NPR a reality.


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