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Monday 13 December 2021

INSIGHTS: We have an Integrated Rail Plan, but the work doesn't stop here

It's not every day that the Government commits to £50bn of new railways. These decisions involve millions of pounds of studies, and then months of arguing over the pros and cons of different choices, both within and outside the Department for Transport, then with the Treasury and Number 10. It's a minor miracle that the Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) ever got published, never mind ten months late. So: many congratulations to the IRP team that got it over the line.

IRP covers HS2 Phase 2b, the Northern Powerhouse Rail plans for east-west services in northern England, and our very own Midlands Rail Hub. It was clear that not everything was affordable, and the separate projects could be better integrated. For some months, politicians have been hinting at a cunning plan that would be cheaper and quicker to deliver. As it turned out, we got a clear sense of the budget available, and things they’ve definitely decided not to do. But key elements of the plan need further study.

In the Midlands and the North, our starting point is usually a two-track mixed-traffic railway, with fast trains competing for space with stoppers and freight. In an ideal world we’d build new fast lines between all the major cities, and new stations. But the perfect solution always costs more and takes forever. So, the Integrated Rail Plan was conceived to consider the trade-offs, and work out where best to build new, where better to upgrade.

The simplest upgrade is to use the existing stations, electrify, maybe upgrade the signalling, improve linespeed, and put in some passing loops to allow for overtaking. If you have space for the passing loops, this can work tolerably well for a few fast trains. But if there are a lot of intermediate stops, it makes sense to build a section of new line in open country to bypass them. And if the route into the city centre is congested, you may well need to build a new line into the city centre too.

Building a new section of line is more likely to be value-for-money if lots of fast trains can use it, but then you are more likely to need an expensive new route into the city centre. And if you build long stretches of new high speed line, this will encourage a lot more people to travel, so you need longer trains and platforms too. If the cost of that feels a bit exponential, you’d be right.

So one of the key questions for IRP was whether there are any realistic alternatives. Around Manchester, the existing lines are full, there are lots of intermediate stops, and the main station is very constrained. So the conclusion was that new lines and a new station were needed. But towards Liverpool, and through Huddersfield to Leeds, York and Newcastle, they’ve decided that a few new sections of four-track are enough.

A similar process was applied to HS2’s Eastern Leg, but with the added complication that the bigger markets, and longer distances mean that non-stop fast services are more worthwhile. Between Birmingham and Nottingham, the alternative route is a lot slower, so a new section of high speed line was worthwhile. There’s a similar situation at the northern end, where the smart money was on a new section of high speed line between Sheffield and Leeds, though that didn’t make the cut. The study into what should be done at Leeds station may need to be done first.

The middle section of the Eastern Leg has several alternatives. The HS2 route was deemed too expensive, partly due to interactions with the M1, partly due to the prevalence of old mineworkings. The National Infrastructure Commission’s Rail Needs Assessment had an option of a major upgrade of the Erewash and Old Road. Greengauge 21 has proposed a new high speed line in the East Coast Main Line corridor, in more open country. The East Midlands to Leeds study is expected to look at a range of such options.

The interesting conundrum is how IRP intends to deliver the headline journey times between London, York and Newcastle. These are clearly committed in IRP, but would be quite hard to achieve with a major upgrade of the existing line. It’s even harder to see how they could make room for more services to run out of Kings Cross.

Maybe there’s a cunning plan that they’re still working on.

Richard Mann is Rail Strategy Lead at Midlands Connect




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