The UK government has set out plans to invest £96bn in rail across the Midland and the North: it must now deliver at pace and ensure continued focus on achieving the wider economic outcomes to deliver levelling-up.
The Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) sets out a £96bn investment in rail across the Midlands and the North. It has been billed as the biggest ever government investment in the UK’s rail network with a focus outside of London and the South East. The latest proposals indicate that local service upgrades and faster journeys to some areas will come about at greater speed, with the loss of other planned schemes such as a large part of the High Speed 2 (HS2) eastern leg and the scaling back of Northern Powerhouse Rail.
While there will be continued debate on the proposed approach, if the IRP is to meet its stated ambition of “similar or better value for money than the original HS2 and Leeds–Manchester proposals”, while “bringing benefits for passengers far sooner than the previous plans”, then delivery must ensure focus on four things:
1. Accelerating design and approvals to get ‘spades in the ground’: a key part of the Government’s message was that, compared to previous plans, the IRP would deliver benefits earlier. While the rail industry has initiated new delivery approaches such as SPEED (Swift, Pragmatic and Efficient Enhancement Delivery) and PACE (Project Acceleration in a Controlled Environment), these remain in their infancy. There are a number of actions the industry can take to further challenge existing development approaches: undertake public consultation more quickly; utilise existing frameworks and other commercial approaches to reduce procurement timelines; streamline supporting analyses where possible; and parallel running approvals to minimise delays.
Given that the proposed delivery plans within the IRP state that work between Manchester to Leeds and Liverpool to Manchester will not be delivered until the early 2040s, it’s vital that any short-term benefits are clearly communicated to indicate progress and build momentum. At the same time, rail should keep the conversation going about potential renewed investment in east-to-west coast connectivity, and in economically underperforming cities.
2. Increasing rail demand by better meeting passengers’ needs: most of the focus in the IRP is on infrastructure improvements – seeking to reduce journey times between major cities and increase capacity through larger and more frequent services. However, other factors that will impact future passenger demand must not be ignored. The most obvious is ticketing. The IRP sets out plans to introduce London-style contactless ticketing across the commuter networks. This must be combined with simplification of ticket pricing, a wider focus on related customer services (such as automated refunds), and link to other local transport mode ticketing to make travel as easy as possible.
Another factor is network resilience: improving connectivity is more than journey times and capacity, and reliability of services is just as important to incentivise passengers to travel by train. As the proposed schemes are developed, there needs to be continued focus and analysis on ensuring the interventions work together as an overall network, and not just a group of unrelated infrastructure schemes.
3. Delivering economic outcomes, not just new infrastructure: as the Secretary of State for Transport sets out in his foreword to the IRP, “railways are about more than getting people from A to B. When planned properly, they contribute to societal growth, help business prosper, create new jobs and opportunities, and improve the lives of local people”.
For instance, rail investment can support the viability of new housing developments and regeneration ambitions. In order for this to happen, it is vital that plans are integrated and coordinated with local initiatives, such as the proposed West Yorkshire Mass Transit System, to amplify the potential impacts. Integrated decision-making is required across central government (via the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the Department for Transport), through to elected leaders and Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) – and it’s here where local transport bodies can play a key role.
4. Managing disruption during development: the IRP’s focus on upgrading existing lines rather than delivering new lines comes with a number of challenges. Foremost is managing the levels of disruption to passengers during these upgrades – which could, in turn, impact both short-term and long term passenger demand.
There must therefore be careful coordination between upgrades on different parts of the network, as well as with other transport related schemes – including road schemes and other local transport initiatives. This will potentially impact both how interventions are divided into mini-projects (i.e. single large projects versus larger numbers of smaller projects), and the phasing of the delivery of these projects. This can ensure the right balance is struck between delivering at speed to provide new benefits, and limiting disruption on the network as much as possible.
The IRP provides a huge opportunity not just to improve connectivity in the Midlands and the North, but also to dramatically increase the use of rail to drive wider economic growth. Rail leaders must ensure they keep their eye on this larger prize, and develop appropriate delivery mechanisms to unlock these future benefits.