Northern transport plan ‘will boost recovery’

20 Mar 15

A new transport strategy for the north of England has been set out by government and councils today, including options for a £65bn upgraded network of high-speed lines to boost connectivity across the region.

Setting out the first-ever comprehensive transport strategy for the region, Chancellor George Osborne said proposals to also simplify fares and introduce Oyster-style contactless payments across the region would help deliver ‘a truly national recovery’.

He added: ‘Connecting up the great cities of the north is at the heart of our plan to build a Northern Powerhouse. This report has the potential to revolutionise transport in the north and we will work closely with Transport for the North to help make it a reality.’

A proposal for a high-speed ‘TransNorth’ network between Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle and Hull is at the centre of the plans. Network Rail has set out options to improve speeds on the rail network in the region to 140 miles per hour, which include the possibility of new tracks between Manchester and Leeds and Sheffield, and Newcastle to Leeds.

Overall, the cost of five new high-speed lines could cost between £40.5bn and £65bn, according to Network Rail, while improvements to existing infrastructure to achieve higher speeds could be delivered for between £12.5bn and £23bn, according to indicative costings set out today.

Under the initiative, journey times between Liverpool and Manchester could be as low as 20 minutes, while Manchester to Sheffield and Leeds could both be 30 minutes, and Sheffield to Hull could take 50 minutes.

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin confirmed the government would now fund further development of the options identified, with road and rail plans now jointly commissioned by TfN and government.

‘This dynamic change, led by the chancellor with northern leaders, transforms the way government looks at transport solutions for the north,’ he added.

‘No government has given such attention to the infrastructure of our great northern cities and how to deliver a world-class, integrated transport network for the north. The proposals announced today will reduce journey times while increasing capacity and connectivity, enabling growth.

As well as introducing smartcard technology across the region, the plan also proposes developing new east-west road connections including a road tunnel under the Peak District. Go ahead has also been given for the A6 to Manchester Airport Relief Road.

Sir Richard Leese, the leader of Manchester City Council and chair of the TfN partnership board formed to develop a proposal for improvements, said today’s plan marked the culmination of work to develop a shared vision.

‘But our work is far from done, we must now ensure TfN delivers a north which has a vibrant and growing economy, acts as a magnet for inward investment, and which capitalises on the strengths of our great northern cities,’ he added.

‘This strategy presents an opportunity to better connect the cities of the north, make the most of existing skills and businesses and attract new ones and the yardstick of success is quite simple – to empower the north to compete with the rest of the world and become an engine for growth in the UK.’

Responding to the plans, IPPR North director Ed Cox said the ambition of the announcement was encouraging.

‘The measures represent welcome progress in improving connections and creating an integrated transport network to boost economic growth in the north of England,’ he added.

‘Further detail on proposed schemes is welcome, but the funding to make these plans a reality has yet to be allocated – meaning the Northern Powerhouse still remains a laudable political ambition, rather than an engine of Northern prosperity it needs to be.

‘Ultimately, five-year Northern infrastructure budgets need to be properly devolved to TfN as they are in Scotland, allowing TfN to determine its own appraisal processes and ending the in-built bias towards funding infrastructure schemes in London.’

John Hicks, the head of government & public at engineering and construction firm AECOM, said the plan still lacked clarity about delivery timetables.

‘However, clarity will remain elusive until there is more detail about funding. Bold and ambitious though the strategy may be, it risks becoming an aspirational wish-list without the accompanying investment,’ he said.

‘Funding infrastructure in these straitened times is no mean feat. The National Infrastructure Plan has helped get Britain building. So impetus is not lost, further encouragement is needed for new financing and delivery models.

‘The nascent return of municipal bonds is welcome, but investment risks must be adequately spread. It’s essential bonds relate to a pipeline of developments that investors believe will happen.’

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