Liverpool View: Why Integrated Rail Plan Is A Major Downgrade From Pledged Investment


Image by Pimlico Badger licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Dr Tom Arnold is Associate Researcher at the Heseltine Institute for Public Policy, Practice and Place at the University of Liverpool.

The government’s recently announced Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) was, in the view of most, a major downgrade of the rail investment promised in the north of England and the Midlands for most of a decade.

The eastern part of HS2 is canceled, with a high-speed service now only operating from Birmingham to East Midlands Parkway. The Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) in its full grease form is no longer replaced by a mixture of new line and electrification. Bradford will not benefit from a new high speed service to Leeds and Manchester. A West Yorkshire public transport network is proposed, although various plans are in place for a light rail network covering Leeds and its neighbors for almost 50 years, the reaction in the region has been understandably skeptical.

The plan is difficult reading. Part of the reason is that many proposals have already been announced, making it difficult to quantify the Prime Minister’s announcement that this is “the biggest government investment ever in our rail network.”

Discerning real changes in strategic transport policy from post-hoc justifications for dropping flagship infrastructure projects is hard work. Hidden among the fine print is the detail that “commitments will only be made to advance individual projects to the next stage of development” – even the scaled-down projects proposed in the IRP to replace HS2 East and NPR. are far from guaranteed.

However, step back into the details and the plan raises three key questions.

What does the IRP say about the government’s broader transportation agenda?

IRP is not a plan designed to increase train travel.

HS2 and, to a lesser extent, NPR, were proposed on the basis that the capacity of the rail network would have to increase significantly to cope with more passengers and move freight traffic from road to rail. Transport for the North (TfN), the statutory planning body responsible for planning the NPR, highlighted the importance of this modal shift to meeting carbon emissions targets, providing that car use should lower if the UK is to have a chance of reaching net zero.

The IRP suggests that the focus instead will be on providing ‘quick wins’ through electrification and other upgrades to existing lines, recalibrating policy away from the focus on the train. high speed and in favor of local links.

I am skeptical of this approach for several reasons.

First, the plans do little to significantly increase capacity, meaning that freight and local services will in most cases continue to use the same lines as long distance services, with limited speeds. Some of the most under-sold benefits of HS2 are its ability to free up capacity on other lines.

Second, upgrades to the existing network will be extremely disruptive to passengers, causing some commuters to switch to driving, perhaps permanently.

Third, the plan fails to address traffic congestion in and around Manchester, which slows down services circulating in the city, with IRP proposals continuing to rely on an already overcrowded Piccadilly station.

Fourth, a key goal of high-speed rail is to reduce domestic air travel, a goal that is barely mentioned in the IRP and that will not be achieved with piecemeal improvements.

And finally, the electrification of railways should be seen as a basic upgrade of old infrastructure, and not as a fundamental part of an ambitious transport plan. Much of the electrification of Transpennine announced in the IRP was first announced in 2011.

Ultimately, cuts to previously agreed infrastructure proposals are the result of the Treasury’s innate institutional prudence, further reinforced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s reluctance to increase government borrowing.

As the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush points out, Sunak’s decision to impose a 3% of GDP limit on infrastructure spending makes it difficult to achieve the level of investment needed to transform the aging and intensive transportation network. carbon dioxide from the United Kingdom. Despite the changes made to the Green Paper in 2020 which were intended to encourage a move away from the myopic focus on cost-benefit analysis that had long characterized transport spending decisions, the Treasury remains a formidable obstacle to public investment.

The IRP is a continuation of UK transport policy over decades, which views infrastructure primarily in terms of demand management and tax restrictions rather than as a tool for economic and environmental transformation.

What future for Transports pour le Nord?

The cancellation of HS2 East and NPR is a blow to Transport for the North (TfN).

The organization was established in 2015 and is on a mission to develop a transport plan to promote economic rebalancing, create a ‘one economy’ in the north of England and connect towns and villages for their make it possible to be “stronger than the sum of their parts”.

TfN’s original plan for NPR focused on reducing train times between Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield, but the development of a strong economic evidence base and intensive lobbying from the West Yorkshire Combined Authority led to the inclusion of Bradford in his “vision” for the high-speed network. (below), published in its 2019 Strategic Transport Plan.

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Northern Powerhouse Rail’s ’emerging vision’, including new high-speed lines between Liverpool and Manchester, and Manchester and Leeds via Bradofrd (Transport for the North, 2019)

Northern Powerhouse Rail is TfN’s totem project.

The organization’s significant investment in economic assessment and modeling was designed to develop a rock-solid case for an investment that would be transformational – “more than an infrastructure project … a social and economic catalyst for region “.

TfN has done an impressive job, acting as a de facto economic agency for the north of England as well as a transport agency, particularly through the Northern Powerhouse Independent Economic Review. However, mayors and local government leaders who sit on the TfN board may now wonder what the point is if the government can simply ignore plans that have been made for five years.

With the government’s apparent cooling on subnational institutions in recent years, it is difficult to be optimistic about the future of the subnational transport body in northern England.

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NPR’s new ‘core network’ proposals, showing a mix of upgrades and new lines (IRP, 2021)

Is the upgrade complete before it starts?

Leveling Up has long been a policy-seeking slogan, but the focus of the agenda seems clearer than it was a few months ago.

Now in charge of the new Department for Leveling to the Top, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove focused on four areas: local leadership, standard of living, public services and “place of choice”. Transport infrastructure is notable for its absence, and unlike previous attempts to inject energy into tackling the UK’s wide inter-regional disparities.

The IRP represents the latest evidence of a clear shift from large capital expenditures in megaprojects and towards smaller scale investments.

The Leveling Up Fund, for example, only funds projects worth up to £ 20million, with a focus on those that can be delivered quickly. Likewise, the Towns Fund is offering up to £ 25million for successful bids.

Although beautifying main streets, building recreation centers, and installing more garbage cans are quite laudable projects, these were the types of regeneration activities until recently routinely delivered by authorities. local.

This level of investment is unlikely to contribute significantly to rebalancing the economic geography of the UK – “the biggest project a government can undertake,” the PM says in his Conservative Party conference speech earlier this year.

There is a legitimate argument that voters will appreciate improvements to their local environment – parks, utilities and other amenities – more than new rail lines that they might not use for 20 years, if at all. However, the economic, social and environmental challenges that the UK will face over the next few years make it imperative to invest in transport infrastructure.

The UK’s commitment to achieve net zero by 2050 will not be achieved without a shift from air and road journeys to more carbon-efficient modes of transport, even as electric cars become ubiquitous in the next coming decade.

Cities in England outside of London are poorer and less productive than they should be, with poor transport connectivity a big contributor. Freight and distribution networks will need to be improved in the UK’s post-Brexit business environment.

IRP is a blow to those who believe that investing in infrastructure is not only effective in improving economic and social outcomes, but also prudent.

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