Northern Powerhouse Rail: The need for change

Source: RTM Aug/Sept 2018

Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) will be transformational for the north – it will change the way people live, work, and play. It will rebalance the UK economy, and also make sure the north can take full advantage of the opportunities HS2 will bring. Tim Wood, its director at Transport for the North (TfN), talks about why investment in rail infrastructure can be the driving force for the region.

The north has experienced the twin issues of underinvestment in infrastructure and astonishing passenger growth, which have meant our rail network is bursting at the seams. Rail use in the region is up by 307% since 1995 – a trajectory and pace that is expected to continue for the coming decades. We need to make sure that in 30 years, somebody writing a piece similar to this will be able to talk about how they are building on what we have done, to make sure we never again have a situation where our infrastructure lags behind our ambition and holds us back.

At the heart of TfN’s plans is NPR. It is a response to the challenge we face now, featuring new infrastructure between major cities and key economic centres, as well as significantly upgraded lines and full integration with existing and new routes such as HS2 and the TransPennine route upgrade. It is genuinely a once-in-a-generation chance to deliver a step-change in how we get around the north by rail.

Why do we need NPR?

Put simply, it means better reliability, it means rapid travel, and it means more capacity to deal with growth.

Too often, we get hung up on the scale of such opportunities: for instance, NPR will bring 1.3 million people within an hour’s reach of four of more of the north’s largest cities and the region’s largest airport (up from the current figure of 10,000). In addition, only 12% of businesses identified as having the north’s prime capabilities (as shown in the Northern Powerhouse Independent Economic Review) would be within 90 minutes. This would increase to 40% with NPR.

There is, however, the personal aspect of what we are planning. For individuals, it means a new era of opportunity. The north will become better connected. The opportunities for a 16-year-old in the region now are limited by geography – if you live in Liverpool, then Leeds looks a long way away. We want to make that kind of journey more realistic for the next generation.

For businesses, there will be greater access to talent from across the whole of the north. There will be more rapid access to cities, better links to our airports, and more capacity to transport freight. This in turn will help us to drive innovation, and create and grow some truly world-leading industries anchored in the north of England.

What we are doing now

Our remit is to be a guiding mind for a more joined-up approach to infrastructure planning. We recognise that we aren’t looking at transport for transport’s sake. It is a means to an end. It is to help realise the potential of the north. In practice, we are bringing forward the right scheme, in the right place, at the right time, to achieve our vision of a thriving north of England.

We will develop a robust, evidence-based case for NPR. We are compiling this now and will submit our initial, high-level Strategic Outline Business Case to the secretary of state by December. We are also carrying out feasibility studies to show just how the networks will integrate. It is vital, for example, that NPR fully links to the East and West Coast mainlines as well as HS2 if we are to see the results we want.

Ultimately, we will present to government a clear, costed pipeline of investment that will deliver the change we want to see, supported by a strong economic case based on need rather than desire.

Leaving a legacy

To me, success over the next 30 years won’t be measured in miles of new track. It’ll be measured on how our businesses have expanded and flourished; how behaviours and attitudes to travelling between cities have changed; and how new job creation and productivity have rocketed as a result. That will be the legacy.

It will be the bedrock on which a true Northern Powerhouse economy is built on. If anything, the business community needs to have a greater voice in articulating the will for change, making the case for improved infrastructure a ‘no-brainer’ for UK plc.

There is no doubt that the will has been there for a long time. The difference now is that – with NPR and our statutory status – we have a clear route and remit to unlock investment.


Tim Wood is the Keynote Speaker at this year's edition of TransCityRail North. Don't miss your chance to attend, visit the website here


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