£3bn trans-Pennine rail upgrade funding announced – but questions remain

The transport secretary Chris Grayling has announced that he expects a £3bn programme of upgrades to the trans-Pennine rail route to begin from spring 2019 but it remains unclear what specific improvements will include and what areas should benefit as a result.

Grayling has said that while work is underway on the key route between Manchester, Leeds and York, he expects Network Rail to begin investing the £3bn into an ambitious rolling programme of works as soon as possible.

The improvements will happen in “lockstep” with an Independent Affordability Review, commissioned jointly by the Department for Transport and Transport for London, also established to ensure that Crossrail 2 demonstrates affordability and value for money to the taxpayer.

Grayling also said he will work with local authorities along the trans-Pennine route to discuss how to maximise the benefits of the £3 billion investment, such as creating new stations to increase access to the railway and finding opportunities for housing development.

Speaking at a Northern Powerhouse transport conference, Grayling said: “I want to realise passenger benefits from the £3bn we have ring-fenced for the Pennine route as fast as possible. Network Rail has already begun detailed designs and provided us with options for the trans-Pennine route upgrade to meet the objectives we’ve set out - for journey times, capacity and reliability. That – in turn – has given us an opportunity to undertake the work in phases starting as soon as spring next year. This is not just about meeting rising demand for train travel. It’s about transforming journeys too.” 

But questions have still arisen following Grayling’s £3bn pledge on how extensive commitments to improving rail services in the north go. Grayling has failed to acknowledge the Northern Powerhouse Partnership’s (NPP) calls to deliver Northern Powerhouse Rail at the same time as HS2 Phase 2B. 

A collection of northern mayors, MPs, and business argue that improving transport links between big cities such as Manchester, Liverpool and Bradford would mean the north-south divide does not widen in the coming years.

Transport leaders are also calling for a clarification on the improvements happening in “lockstep” with the Crossrail 2 affordability review and whether the money pledged to the north relies upon the successful delivery of the network in the south.

Responding to the transport secretary, the Northern Powerhouse Partnership (NPP) has said while the funding provides opportunities, it would still be asking the government to do more to ensure the north is not left behind. 

The NPP’s director Henri Murison, said: “We will be asking the secretary of state to also go further and start building the upgraded link to HS2 south from York to allow these upgrades in coming years to deliver the final Northern Powerhouse Rail requirements between York and Leeds. This will avoid returning to this vital piece of infrastructure a decade later - which every passenger from the North East heading to Leeds as well as Manchester relies on - and is a way to deliver key east to west network improvements sooner, at a reduced final cost. Northern Powerhouse Rail is vital for the economic performance of the whole country. The Pennine upgrades today will keep the Northern Powerhouse moving towards higher productivity until the new line from Leeds and Bradford City Centre to Manchester is finished, which should be delivered as or before HS2 is completed.”

While the announcement has also been welcomed by the leader of Leeds City Council, Judith Blake, she reiterated the need for more investment in the north and remains keen on seeing the full details. She added: “This needs to be just the start of much-needed significant transport infrastructure investment in the north and we will continue to push for more to be delivered as quickly as possible to boost our economic growth and to improve the lives of millions of people.”

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