To the west of the Pennines, the Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) for the North and Midlands is a tale of two cities…and a town incorrectly referred to as a city
Residents and businesses in the Greater Manchester area will be relieved that HS2 Phase 2b is proceeding. Supported by new high-speed stations at Manchester Airport and Manchester Piccadilly, this will significantly increase wider rail network capacity, as well as reducing journey times between Manchester, Birmingham, and London.
The IRP also announced new high-speed lines connecting HS2 to Warrington Bank Quay and to the Greater Manchester/West Yorkshire boundary. These will improve connectivity and journey times to directly connected stations, but also for onward journeys including along the existing Transpennine route. These are welcomed on what are currently very congested routes. routes. However, the decision not to fund a new high-speed line between Manchester and Leeds via Bradford is a disappointment. The IRP indicates that this option would only have resulted in a minimal reduction in journey time improvements compared with the announced option. But this is short-sighted. Any capacity benefits will be relatively short-lived and a number of wider benefits of new railway lines are overlooked, such as the generation of economic and social opportunities for communities and businesses along the route, and, taking polluting HGVs off the road network by freeing up rail network space for freight.
For anyone that regularly experiences the chaos at platforms 13 and 14 at Manchester Piccadilly due to the network constraints in this area, the IRP offers nothing of comfort. It is silent on the previous proposal to quadruple capacity in the area through the creation of two new platforms (15 & 16) at Piccadilly and a range of improvements at Manchester Oxford Road station. This is a concern as the existing infrastructure is evidently not up to supporting any increase in capacity.
For the Liverpool City Region, the IRP is a disappointment with no provision for a new high-speed connection into the city. Whilst the capacity improvements are welcome, the expected journey time of 35 minutes between the two cities is no better than the current fastest service between Manchester Victoria and Liverpool Lime Street. This is another lost opportunity. As evidenced in the IRP, passenger numbers on this well-used route increased by 8% per annum on average between 2011 and 2019.
The IRP presents a lukewarm stance on any new Liverpool station, confirming this will need to be locally funded – I hope someone has started a whip-round! This means that further upgrades at Lime Street are likely to be necessary to increase in capacity, despite challenges represented by existing constraints associated with the tunnels on the approach to the station.
On a more positive note for Liverpool, the extension of the high-speed network to Warrington will mean that, once HS2 phase 2b has been completed, journey times to London will be reduced to one hour and 34 minutes which is 38 minutes less than existing services and 19 minutes quicker than the journey between Leeds and London once all improvements have been completed.
As for Warrington City (or should that be Town?!), the high-speed link to Bank Quay will significantly decrease journey times to Manchester Airport and Manchester Piccadilly and improve speeds to London. The upgrade of the Fiddler’s Ferry freight route is welcome and provides additional network resilience between Warrington and Liverpool. However, it is unlikely to result in any meaningful decrease in travel time.
In summary, the IRP is a mixed bag for the north-west and feels like a real missed opportunity, particularly around improving east-west links. The distance between Liverpool and Leeds is approximately 65 miles and, when you take out the sections of the route already committed as part of HS2 Phase 2b, the actual amount of new high-speed line proposed in the IRP is approximately 25 miles, which equates to 38% of the distance between the two cities. If the Government is serious about hitting the UK’s net-zero target for Carbon, they need to convince people to ditch their cars and take the train and also significantly increase the amount of freight transported by rail. The decision not to commit to a new line threatens these aspirations and will have a detrimental impact on the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions