Ministers have shelved the Transpennine rail upgrade. Is the Northern Powerhouse dead?

"And the budget cuts will be THIS big!" George Osborne gives a speech on the Northern Powerhouse on 14 May 2015. Image: Christopher Furlong/Getty.

Note: This story was edited at 14.00hrs, to include some counter arguments to our angry rant. You can read them at the bottom of the story.

Seven weeks ago, the Conservative party won Britain’s general election on a manifesto which pledged to rebalance Britain’s economy and turn the cities of England’s M62 corridor into a “Northern Powerhouse”.

A lot of that policy has turned out to be PR fluff, of the standing-about-on-building-sites-in-high-viz-jackets variety. But at the core of it were two big and concrete ideas. One was devolving power; the other was a major investment in the region’s transport links, to make it possible to live in, say, Bradford, and commute to work in Manchester.

Anyway. Yesterday, this happened:

The government says it will delay or cut back a number of modernisation projects planned for Network Rail.

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin says rising costs and missed targets make the £38.5bn five-year plan untenable.

He blamed Network Rail, saying it should have foreseen the improvements would cost more and take longer.

(That’s from the BBC.)

There were three major rail upgrades included in this plan. One is the electrification of the core section of the Transpennine route, between Manchester and Leeds. That’s been shelved.

Another is the electrification of the Midland mainline, between Bedford, Nottingham and Sheffield. (The section south of Bedford, which serves the London commuter market, was electrified years ago). That’s been shelved too.

The third is electrification of the Great Western line, from London towards Oxford, Bristol and Cardiff. Has that been shelved too? Here’s McLoughin again:

Electrification of the Great Western line is a top priority and I want Network Rail to concentrate its efforts on getting that right.

It’s not that we’re cynical about the government’s commitment to the Northern Powerhouse, exactly. But, well:

While we’re not being cynical, check out this map from Network Rail’s latest annual report, showing its major infrastructure projects in 2014-15.

One project in Scotland, one in the north, two in the Midlands... and four in London. I live in London. I work in London. I have been a Londoner all my life.

But come on.

The government has framed these cuts as an emergency response to problems at Network Rail: yesterday, it also announced that the body’s current chair Richard Parry-Jones was stepping down, to be replaced by London’s transport commissioner, Sir Peter Hendy. The implication is that ministers would just love to continue with the investment plan they announced last year, but simply can’t afford it.

But there are two problems with this. One is that Network Rail has said it knew early last year that the five-year plan would be “incredibly difficult to deliver”. The Conservative party must have known that, even as it made all those manifesto commitments to investing in the north.

The other, bigger problem is that it is very, very obvious that schemes affecting the north have been axed, while those restricted to the south haven’t.

From an economic modelling perspective this probably makes sense: as we’ve explained before, projects affecting a big and rich city like London will always do better in a cost:benefit analysis than those that don’t.

But it nonetheless means that rich southern commuters are getting investment, while less rich northern ones are stuck with the same crappy service they’ve had for decades.

If the government or its civil service are really serious about rebalancing Britain’s economy, and creating a northern powerhouse, this is a funny way of going about it.

EDIT: 14.00hrs

Pains us though it does to say it, we might have been a little unfair here. On our Facebook page (where you should definitely all like us, by the way), Nick Kingsley, the managing editor of Railway Gazette International, and a northerner himself, has got in touch to point out the other side of the story.

You can read his full comments on Facebook, but here, reposted with Nick’s permission, are the key points:


1) You don't cancel projects that have already been started.

“...the main reason the Great Western project is proceeding is because it’s well in hand, not because it is in the south. Neither the [Midland Main Line] nor [Transpennine] projects have yet seen serious work begin in earnest.”


2) Electrification isn't all it’s cracked up to be anyway.

“ mainly delivers benefit to the rail asset manager itself, ie. Network Rail, by reducing track wear and maintenance cost.

“Yes, journeys get a bit quieter and a bit more pleasant, possibly through new rolling stock (though not always). But electrification alone does not deliver a step change in capacity or connectivity.”


3) It's better to take a bit longer but do things right.

“On the Manchester – Leeds corridor, there was serious concern that electrification on the existing alignment would worsen a capacity squeeze that sees the limited-stop inter-city service taking capacity away from trains serving local stations.

“As the Transport Secretary’s statement clearly implied, it might be better to come up with a much more robust rail investment programme which encompasses the HS3 idea [an entirely new Transpennine line] before we embark on a tricky, potentially flawed "patch and mend" job on just one of the five trans-Pennine rail arteries.”


Valid points all.

So perhaps, in the short term, this is the correct decision. It remains striking, nonetheless, how many of the projects that were already underway, and therefore untouchable – the Great Western, Thameslink, Crossrail – are the ones affecting London.

HS3, by contrast, is little more than a whizzy brand name at this point. Rather like the Northern Powerhouse itself.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.


To transform Australia’s cities, it should scrap its car parks

A Sydney car park from above. Image: Getty.

Parking may seem like a “pedestrian” topic (pun intended). However, parking is of increasing importance in metropolitan areas worldwide. On average, motor vehicles are parked 95 per cent of the time. Yet most transport analysis focuses on vehicles when they are moving.

Substantial amounts of land and buildings are set aside to accommodate “immobile” vehicles. In Australia, Brisbane provides 25,633 parking spaces in the CBD, Sydney 28,939 and Melbourne 41,687. In high-demand areas, car parks can cost far more than the vehicle itself.

However, parking is not just an Australian problem. By some estimates, 30,000 square kilometres of land is devoted to parking in Europe and 27,000 km² in the US. This parking takes up a large part of city space, much of it highly valued, centrally located land.

Traditionally, transport planners believed that generous parking allocations provided substantial benefits to users. In reality, excessive parking is known to adversely affect both transport and land use. These impacts, along with recent land-use, socioeconomic and technological trends, are prompting cities to start asking some important questions about parking.

Australian planners must engage with emerging trends to help cities work out the best way to reclaim and repurpose parking space in ways that enhance efficiency and liveability while minimising disruption.

Here we chart likely challenges and opportunities created by these trends over coming decades.

Key trends affecting parking space in cities. Image: author provided.

Land use

All Australian cities have policies to encourage densification, consolidation and infill development in their centres. In conjunction, some cities are setting maximum limits on parking to prevent it taking over valuable inner-city properties.

Transit-oriented development (TOD) has also become popular, at least on paper. This is another form of urban consolidation around transit nodes and corridors. It is known to benefit from high-quality urban design, “walkability”, “cyclability” and a mix of functions.

These developments mean that people who live in CBDs, inner-ring suburbs and near public transport stops will use cars less. Consequently, demand for parking will decrease.

Some non-TOD suburbs are trying to replicate inner-city features as well. For example, some suburban shopping centres have introduced paid parking. This is a significant shift from previous eras, when malls guaranteed ample free parking.

Suburbanites who lack easy public transport access will continue to rely on cars. But rather than driving all the way to a CBD, commuters will increasingly opt for park-and-ride at suburban stations, thereby increasing demand for park-and-ride lots at public transport interchanges. However, excessive capacity might hurt rather than help patronage.

Social trends

In addition to land use, several social trends will affect the need for parking.

First, young people are delaying getting drivers’ licences because driving is culturally less important to them than in previous generations.

Second, people of all ages are moving from outer suburbs to inner cities. For many, this means less driving because walking, cycling and public transport are more convenient in inner cities.


inally, the emergence of Uber, Lyft and vehicle-sharing arrangements means that people are not buying cars. Research suggests that each car-sharing vehicle removes nine to 13 individually owned vehicles from the road.

Together, these trends point to a reduced need for parking because there will be fewer cars overall.


The importance of technology in parking is rising – paving the way for “smarter” parking.

The emergence of a host of smartphone apps, such as ParkMe, Kerb, ParkHound and ParkWhiz, has begun to reshape the parking landscape. For the first time, users can identify and reserve parking according to price and location before starting their journeys.

Apps also make available a host of car parks that previously went unused – such as spaces in a residential driveway. This is because there was no mechanism for letting people know these were available.

In addition, smart pricing programs, such as SFPark in San Francisco, periodically adjust meter and garage pricing to match demand. This encourages drivers to park in underused areas and garages and reduces demand in overused areas.

The advent of autonomous vehicles promises to have dramatic impacts on transport and land use, including parking.

According to one school of thought, mobility services will own most autonomous vehicles, rather than individuals, due to insurance and liability issues. If this happens, far fewer vehicles and parking spaces will be needed as most will be “in motion” rather than parked most of the time.

More space for people and places

The Tikku (Finnish for ‘stick’), by architect Marco Casagrande, is a house with a footprint of just 2.5x5m, the size of a car parking space. Image: Casagrande Laboratory.

The next decade promises much change as emerging land-use, socioeconomic and technological trends reshape the need for, and use of, parking. Cities will devote less space to parking and more space to people and places.

Parking lanes will likely be repurposed as cycling lanes, shared streets, parklets, community gardens and even housing. Concrete parking lots, and faceless garages will likely be converted to much-needed residential, commercial and light industrial use.

The ConversationBy transforming parking, much urban land can turn from wasteland into vibrant activity space.

Dorina Pojani, Lecturer in Urban Planning, The University of Queensland; Iderlina Mateo-Babiano, Senior Lecturer in Urban Planning, University of Melbourne; Jonathan Corcoran, Professor, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Queensland, and Neil Sipe, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.