HS2 and a new direction of travel: Network North

Why not join us with our expert panel in Manchester or online on 11 October to take stock on just what the Government's new direction of transport means and what it implies for the decisions and choices for the railway in the near-term. Details and registration to attend in-person or online here: Recalibrating Britain’s Railways.

After much denial of a decision having been taken, we had confirmation yesterday that the Prime Minister was cancelling the remainder of the HS2 Programme that would have linked Birmingham to Manchester. 

Rishi Sunak set out an eye-catching commitment to invest the sums saved by the cancellation into other projects “in the North and in the Midlands, and across the country”. He quoted a plethora of opportunities for use of those funds in his speech and within hours we had a 44-page document issued by the Secretary of State for Transport to back the pronouncements (Network North: transforming British transport (publishing.service.gov.uk)

Network North – important to rapidly build confidence

A quick read through of the document, the currently only available source of information, could excite many a reader and local politician.  It is bold in its assertions of the money now available to support better transport in our towns and cities.  However, it is worth reflecting on the document and where further effort will be required to sustain the Government’s new course of action:

  • First, let’s recognise that the document is not a plan.  It is the Government’s declaration of support in principle (and subject to a business case) for a variety of interventions and/or benefits it would like to support others in.  The ideas proposed are not consistently priced nor placed in priority or schedule.  There is no comment on capabilities required to deliver the “£36bn” investment the document seeks to describe.
  • The link to the country’s economic drivers and system is not made strongly.  There are just four passing references to freight, and nothing said about the need to attract inward investment.  Instead, the document relies on evidence and lobbying over the last decade about how benefits will flow from local transport improvements, but it is not always clear if those sources were assuming HS2 was built as has been the Government’s commitment since 2012.  How will the proposals now aggressively promote the attraction of inward investment and generation of economic activity in the Midlands and the North?
  • There is no demonstrable coherence of a multimodal transport network for the country but rather some eye-catching time savings on illustrative point-to-point flows. Many of the proposed investments are said to require further scheme development meaning confidence around their costs, benefits, and ability to integrate across the transport system must be low at this stage.  How we create confidence around a coherent network that links these improved local transport networks will be important to individual scheme investment confidence and business cases.
  • A word search confirms no reference to “decarbonisation” or “net zero” but serving the proposed coal mine in Cumbria does get a name-check.  How resilient will the programme and specific interventions be against the Government’s legal duty to achieve net zero carbon by 2050?
  • The schemes, concepts, and ideas name-checked are not all capital investments.  Funding an extension of the £2 bus fare cap for example will provide short-term usage benefits but it is surely revenue support not capital investment?  Meanwhile some of the proposed capital investment must give rise to increased taxpayer support which is incongruent with ongoing affordability challenges of rail and our city transport systems post the pandemic.

All set for a different future?

So, what happens next? We will have to see how much of the Government machinery is immediately able to enact the new declared aspiration.  With “no decision” being stated in recent days there has to be an appropriate scepticism about just how much structure and immediate capability exists around the proposed ‘Network North’. 

To develop, implement and create the outcomes desired in lieu of HS2’s completion then there are material issues to address if the Prime Minister is to succeed in the approach taken today.

  • Coherence – A coherent transport network at city, regional and national levels is surely the ambition and the Government and its local partners will have to identify the nature of that network and its future ambitions at speed.  Compromises will be required, and priorities identified if the network is not to be frustrated or only partially realised by multiple ‘moving parts’ impacting upon each other.
  • Devolution – Will the Government inhibit local choices for infrastructure and transport if they believe that they might impinge upon the their current mantra to “protect the motorist”?
  • Capability – Network Rail and ORR are in the final months of preparing for the start of its five-year Control Period and it was not expecting this level of interaction and enhancement.  The Department for Transport is contemplating internal change involving its own Rail Infrastructure Group.  What are the transport planning, sponsorship, project management and delivery capabilities through public and private sector required to deliver the ambition?
  • Delivery – Delivery choices and capability exist.  Is there a role for private sector funding and partnership beyond the Euston development corporation now floated?  Is the construction and engineering pipeline able to rapidly pivot to multiple different asks across the country when it was arguably focussed materially on HS2’s needs and geography?
  • Assurance – How will the Government assure efficient and effective investment with its partners? In recent weeks accusations of its delivery company, HS2 Limited, have been bold and unequivocal and a repeat will want to be avoided but assuring across multiple projects and partners will be a more challenging task for Government.
  • Agility – the record of Government in implementing its priorities is arguably poor.  Its own proposals for the restructuring of rail reform have effectively stalled.  How confident can the Prime Minister be that the machinery of Government across DfT, DLUHC, HMT and other public sector organisations are ready for the significant programme of enhancements announced today - four years after the last publication of the Rail Network Enhancement Pipeline in October 2019?
  • Confidence – in the hours, days and weeks to come, the degree to which local officials and decisions makers believe that this decision will stick will be important.  Do they perceive that the £36bn spoken of today will remain available or anticipate it will be diluted over time? What is their perspective on the impact of the General Election and the metro mayor authority elections in 2024 on national and local policy? Without confidence we may see that any agility Whitehall government can create is eroded by suspicious or indifferent local partners awaiting the next wind of change.

A decision has been made by the Prime Minister and a new direction of travel launched.  The implication of which is that a thousand more decisions will be required to be taken in the coming days, weeks and years.  

We will explore the near-term implications, opportunities and required first decisions in our Recalibrating Britain’s Railway series in our final two events in the programme. Join us in our second event in Manchester (or attend online) on 11th October exploring the contribution to sustainable communities that rail.  Our great panellists include:

  • Vernon Everitt, Transport Commissioner for Greater Manchester
  • Martin Tugwell, CEO Transport for the North
  • Paul McMahon, Planning & Regulation Director, Network Rail
  • Tricia Williams, COO and Managing Director designate, Northern Trains
  • Daniel Coles, Director, Community Rail Network

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