There was an election a few weeks ago, if you hadn’t noticed, and our new Conservative government is talking about the north a lot. It’s also talking about transport in the north a lot.
So, it’s at least possible that the north will see a sizeable chunk of money spent on transport in the coming years. Specifically, this investment will probably come in railways, creating more and faster journeys between the north’s major cities.
There are a number of names for this plan – Northern Powerhouse Rail, or High Speed Three, or Crossrail North, or some other name dreamed up by a man in a suit behind a desk in London – and, in fact, there are already concrete plans for this project, which could well come to fruition when the government actually manages to sort itself out.
The immediate question is which northern areas are the most populated and economically important – and so which regions need to be better linked by these plans. It would be difficult to measure this equally across the north, but thankfully the government has actually done something useful, for once. (You may be getting the impression that I have lost faith in the government. You would be correct.)
In 1972, the Tory government of the time created a handy subdivision called a metropolitan county – a sort of highly populated and urbanised area, found mainly in the north (as well as in Birmingham – no, not northern), and including Greater Manchester (population 2.8 million), West Yorkshire (2.3 million), South Yorkshire (1.4 million), Merseyside (1.4 million) and Tyne & Wear (1.1 million). Humberside isn’t technically a county anymore, and never was a metropolitan county anyway, but that too is a pretty highly populated region, so it gets included in NPR plans.
These figures suggest that the priority for any northern rail line should to link Manchester and West Yorkshire. And indeed, this has been a plan for a while: the main idea is to link Manchester and Leeds by a new line via Bradford. This also comes alongside the Transpennine route upgrade – an increase in capacity between Huddersfield and Leeds, which should happen regardless of whether NPR/HS3/C4TN goes ahead.
However, the NPR plan is, well, a bit weird. Here’s a map of what it’s supposed to look like:
Click to expand. Image: Department for Transport.
What this entails is upgraded lines between most of these locations, and a new line between Manchester and Leeds, but it’s clear that there’s one major problem – or, perhaps, two slightly smaller problems amounting to the aforementioned major problem.
First problem: not a major one, but the fact that Manchester Airport is defined as a city region really irritates the pedant within me. It’s an airport, mate – does it even have a cathedral? No? Clearly not a city, then.
Second problem: Newcastle. I love Newcastle; it’s the best city in the world. But this map shows how awkward it is to access. The rest of the Northern Powerhouse is firmly situated in the south of the north, and Newcastle is very very northern.
Whilst the plan does not suggest a new line between Newcastle and the rest of the north, it does highlight it as an important destination. Whilst this is true, Tyne & Wear is the least populated of the five Northern metropolitan counties (it does have a large catchment area for much of the north-east, though).
To add to this, there’s not very much between Leeds and Newcastle. The East Coast Main Line to Newcastle is pretty straight all the way until Darlington, and the distance between York and Newcastle is around 80 miles, which is typically covered in just under an hour. In this way, whilst HS3 to Newcastle sounds like a good idea, it isn’t really – you can’t really deliver speed improvements for much of the route.
So while small capacity improvements, such as four-tracking some of the route, could be possible, making Newcastle an integral part of HS3 is little more than PR spin. The NPR plan does suggest improving services, providing direct and express links without huge investment – but it is unclear how this will actually be a boost to current TranspennineExpress services (assuming that the operator is actually functioning).
Sheffield has the same problem. Sheffield is also great, but it’s a bit isolated. Instead, the priority should be improving current links to Sheffield, instead of treating it as an integral part of the NPR network; just like Newcastle, it doesn’t really fit into HS3 (it should, however, get HS2, unlike Newcastle).
Yes, the plan for both these cities is to upgrade lines and reduce journey times. But – and this is the crucial point – this is not enough. Improving existing lines shouldn’t be the subject of a huge regional initiative; it should be the basic requirement for any government worth its salt (yes, I’m hammering the government again). Improvements to the Hope Valley Line, between Sheffield and Manchester, amounting to a couple of new pieces of track have had planning permission since 2018, but work will now not begin until 2022. This is, quite literally, a joke.
Improving lines to Sheffield and Newcastle will improve the situation in the southern north and northern north. But in the middling north, for a real revolution in Transpennine travel, we need to do two things.
Firstly, we need a new line linking Liverpool and Hull, stretching across the north. Connections to the West Coast Main Line are available from Manchester; connections to the CrossCountry route across Yorkshire are available from Leeds; connections to the East Coast Main Line are available from York; and Liverpool and Hull are populated regions with a large catchment area and decent cultural influence. (Liverpool has football, music and history; Hull is the current UK capital of culture.)
A properly fast service between these four cities, unencumbered with current services – possibly with an intermediate stop in Bradford – would reduce journey times across the North. It would require new routes, probably all the way between Manchester and York, but would create a form of Crossrail for the North:
Click to expand. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.
Yes, Liverpool and Hull aren’t as big as Manchester and Leeds; but transport can’t just tie in the biggest cities, or it loses passengers. Manchester and Leeds already dominate the north and only including those two cities in transport spending will widen the divide further.
And, with this bit sorted, we could do something crazy and build a Northern/borders circle. This is getting a bit mental, but bear with me. There is now additional capacity on Transpennine lines, freed up by the creation of this turn-up-and-go service. What we could make looks something like this:
Click to expand. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.
Whilst this may not seem very coherent (not least because my cartography abilities are extremely poor), it offers incredible journey opportunities. People travel on the West Coast Main Line. People travel on the East Coast Main Line. People travel on the Transpennine route. People travel between Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Put it together and you get a fast, frequent and fundamentally simple service linking together the north and the Scottish lowlands without the need to change multiple times – a factor exacerbated by the plethora of operators between these locations, reducing connectivity. Honestly, if you’re creating a true Northern Powerhouse, it makes sense to link into Scotland as well – a fact recognised by TransPennine Express, which recently extended its Liverpool-Newcastle services to Edinburgh (I don’t have a map of this, because TPE still haven’t made one). Trains would have to reverse at one or two places for this circle to work, but it looks well cool, and is also fundamentally feasible.
Some of you will be thinking, “This is a bit of a contradiction in your argument. One minute you’re saying that Newcastle is really awkward and the Northern Powerhouse should be concentrated on the Liverpool-Hull corridor; the next minute, you’re asking for a ‘borders circle’ which would in all likelihood take upwards of six hours to complete a circuit.”
To an extent, you’re right. But there’s a difference. The borders circle is a service. On the other hand, if HS3 is to succeed, it must include completely new infrastructure. A new line between Manchester and Leeds is a good – albeit expensive – idea, but a new line between Leeds and York, or at least a highly expensive expansion of the current route, is also desperately needed, alongside capacity improvements between Manchester and Liverpool and York and Hull to allow complete segregation of these trains running at ten-minute intervals.
When you’re talking about a service, length doesn’t really matter – it’s about connectivity. On the other hand, with infrastructure upgrades, the length of track you’re upgrading or the length of new line you’re building is unbelievably important, because it causes costs to shoot through the roof. The government doesn’t like spending money, but they will be more amenable to a big new train going around the borders and improving links with Scotland (anything to postpone yet another referendum).
We’re reaching the end of this piece, and it’s time for full disclosure: I’m a northerner, and a sceptical one at that. The government has been talking about improving northern transport for years and years and next to nothing has happened, especially outside the north-west. That said, I do think some form of HS3/NPR/Crossrail North will happen: politically, it is vital for either Labour or the Conservatives to try to connect to these northern areas. If HS2 doesn’t go beyond Birmingham, HS3 may be the ironic payoff for the North.
I’m less convinced about the Northern And Borders Orbital Railway (NABOR for short). But we can dream.