What next for high speed northern rail?

By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter

image copyrightPA

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling risked turning himself into a hate figure for train passengers in the north of England, Wales and the Midlands when he ditched long-promised rail electrification schemes last month.

What angered many people, including newly-elected mayors Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram, was Mr Grayling's simultaneous decision to get behind a £30bn scheme to build a new electric railway in London.

It seemed like a classic case of the regions being starved of investment in favour of the south-east of England.

Mr Grayling hopes to redeem himself by delivering faster, more reliable train services, with far less disruption to passengers while the work is being carried out, by using "smarter" technology.

But he faces scepticism from political and business leaders, particularly in the north of England, home of the much-vaunted Northern Powerhouse.

Campaigners plan to step up pressure on Mr Grayling when MPs return from their summer break.

They want guarantees he is not softening up northern England for a let-down on the promise of a fast, modern transport network that will enable the region to compete with London and the South East for global business.

Manchester MP Graham Stringer, a member of the transport committee, has written to its new Labour chairman Lillian Greenwood to ask her to invite Mr Grayling and Network Rail bosses in for a grilling.

The Labour MP wants reassurances that plans to extend the new HS2 high speed line to Manchester and Leeds will not be sidelined by Crossrail 2, the new £30bn electric railway planned for London.

image copyrightReuters
image captionChris Grayling has insisted the north of England will not lose out

Mr Stringer fears the mammoth "hybrid bills" required to get the two projects into law will lead to a parliamentary log jam, with the north ultimately losing out.

"I am worried that resources and parliamentary time are being sucked into the South East," Mr Stringer told BBC News.

He also wants reassurances that revised plans to modernise east-west rail links in the north of England will be up to the job of dealing with extra passengers set to be delivered by HS2.

One scheme that is definitely happening is the £85m project to link Piccadilly with Manchester's other main railway stations, Victoria and Oxford Road, which is due to be completed by the end of the year.

But Mr Stringer is concerned that the government will pull the plug on plans for two new platforms at Manchester's Piccadilly station, to cope with the increase in passengers passing through it.

Mr Grayling has reportedly asked Network Rail if they can "do something with digital technology" to increase capacity without building new platforms.

image copyrightHS2
image captionHow the new HS2 station at Leeds might look

'Faster trains'

Former chancellor George Osborne's plan to link up northern English cities like Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds into a single economic "powerhouse" hinged on faster trains and better connections.

Work is under way to electrify the Transpennine rail route, from Liverpool to Newcastle - but although the final investment decision is not due until next year, Mr Grayling has suggested overhead wires will not now be installed along the entire route.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionHitachi trains have been ordered for bi-mode routes

He has also scrapped plans to electrify routes between Cardiff and Swansea; Kettering, Nottingham and Sheffield; and Windermere and Oxenholme.

He says new "bi-mode" trains, which can transfer seamlessly from electric to diesel power, mean there is no need to spend money on "difficult" work to fit Victorian tunnels and track with overhead power cables.

Network Rail has promised the bi-mode trains will "deliver faster, longer, more frequent and more reliable services across the north of England, from Newcastle, Hull and York towards Manchester and Liverpool via Leeds" by 2022.

When the plan was to electrify the entire line, estimates were made of improved journey times, with the 50 minute to an hour's trip from Manchester to Leeds predicted to be cut by 15 minutes.

But Network Rail has declined to issue new estimates for "bi-mode" journey times until it has completed a "scoping exercise" on the different options, which it will deliver to the Department for Transport in December.

'Catch-up cash'

Bi-mode trains, such as those built by Hitachi Rail at Newton Aycliffe, County Durham, are capable of running at 140mph in electric mode, although they will initially be limited to 125mph.

They tend to be heavier than electric-only or diesel-only trains, which can hamper acceleration on routes with steep gradients such as the Leeds to Manchester route.

But Hitachi said its bi-mode trains are just 5% heavier and have more power and better acceleration rates than the trains they are replacing.

Journey times will depend on how many stops the trains make and the route they take.

image copyrightHS2
image captionHS2 electric trains are set to improve journey times

Think tank IPPR North is urging the government to commit to a high speed all-electric rail link between Manchester and Leeds, that would dramatically cut journey times, as part of a broader Northern Powerhouse Rail programme.

They are also calling for £59bn in "catch up cash" over the next 10 years to fund schemes drawn up by Transport for North, an alliance of local authorities and business groups, as well as new powers for the group to raise private finance.

IPPR North director Ed Cox said: "Businesses and commuters in the north have been outraged by recent government announcements about transport in the north [of England], so much so that over 50,000 people have signed our online petition demanding fresh commitments to transport spending and devolution.

"This is not simply about fairness, it's about unlocking the potential of the northern economy and finally realising that northern prosperity is national prosperity."

'High quality'

Business groups are expected to step up their lobbying of ministers at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester at the start of October.

Damian Waters, the CBI's North West director, said: "It's vital that projects in different parts of the country are not seen as 'either or'.

"Improving the north of England's infrastructure should come at the same time as enhancements in the south."

Rail union the TSSA is also running a Rally for Rail campaign, calling on the government to reverse the decision to cancel electrification in northern England, Midlands and Wales, which has been backed by Labour MPs and regional development organisations.

A Department for Transport spokesman said the government was committed to improving journey times and connecting communities in the north of England.

"Major upgrades to the Manchester - Leeds - York route are currently being designed and developed, to enable us to deliver more improvements for rail passengers from 2022.

"We are also working with the region to develop plans for Northern Powerhouse Rail, which aims to dramatically improve journey times between the major cities of the north.

"Passengers expect high quality rail services and we are committed to electrification where it delivers benefits, but will also take advantage of new technology to improve journeys."

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