Officials from the Treasury and Department for Transport are meeting today to discuss the future of rail funding, in talks that will reportedly attempt to scrap the proposed Northern Powerhouse Rail project.
The £43bn NPR has been described by industry body Transport for the North as “future defining” and includes plans for a new line between Manchester and Liverpool, upgrades and electrifications of existing services and other work to improve east-west connectivity.
An NPR route would also dovetail with High Speed 2, by sharing track, stations and junctions in parts to slash journey times between the cities of the North. The project was promised by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to MPs in the red wall seats of Northern England in 2019 as part of his policy to level up the region but the plans have yet to be signed off and the funding is not place.
The Sunday Express this weekend reported that any available funds for NPR have been swallowed up by HS2 and cited “well placed sources” as revealing that Whitehall officials are due to meet in the Treasury on Monday, to “effectively kill the project”.
Transport for the North submitted its detailed proposals for NPR to the DfT in March and clamoured for support to help work start in 2024. But the exact details of how the Government intends to fund future transport schemes across the UK is to set out in the Integrated Rail Plan later this year, and the DfT declined to comment beyond that.
A departmental spokesman said: “The Integrated Rail Plan will soon outline exactly how major rail projects, including HS2 phase 2b, the Trans Pennine Route Upgrade and other transformational projects such as Northern Powerhouse Rail, will work together to deliver the reliable train services that passengers across the North and Midlands need and deserve.”
Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, said in a statement to Place North West that abandoning the project would be a “hammer blow” for the region.
Murison said: “In the Prime Minister’s first major policy speech in Manchester, he committed to building Northern Powerhouse Rail across the Pennines. Rumours that this commitment will be broken are deeply concerning for Northern leaders who are working towards rebalancing the economy.
“The North was promised HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail in full. To be abandoned now, just as we begin a recovery from the pandemic, would be a hammer blow. We need reassurance and certainty that there is no substance to these rumours – which means an Integrated Rail Plan published before the summer recess.”
The NPR proposals include:
- Construction of a line from Liverpool to Manchester via the centre of Warrington
- Construction of a line from Manchester to Leeds via the centre of Bradford
- Significant upgrades and journey time improvements to the Hope Valley route between Manchester and Sheffield
- Connecting Sheffield to HS2 and on to Leeds
- Upgrades and electrification of the rail lines from Leeds and Sheffield to Hull
- Upgrades of the East Coast Mainline from Leeds to Newcastle, via York and Darlington, and restoration of the Leamside line
Tim Wood, interim chief executive at Transport for the North, said the NPR proposal “provides a step change in capacity and resilience for both passengers and freight and move us away from an ageing Victorian railway between Manchester and Leeds.
“TfN and its members have long been calling for full electrification of the route and major infrastructure upgrades which will drive our economy, jobs and place making.
“We now await the publication of the Integrated Rail Plan by Government, due soon to transform connectivity across the North including great cities like Bradford which has been held back for far too long.”
In addition to today’s meeting, MPs are expected to grill the DfT on what is being done to improve important transport connections in North of England on Thursday morning. The department told TfN in January that its core budget would be cut from £10m to £6m in the next financial year, putting at risk several other Northern transport initiatives.
Meanwhile, the cost of the HS2 high-speed line has increased by a further £1.7bn over the past year due to Covid-related delays and issues, it was reported today.