Rail in the North

The government as expected has announced a review of the HS2 programme which means, as I expect to do regularly, dusting down the arguments about the importance of HS2 to Manchester and the North.

Firstly it's primarily about capacity. Regular passengers to London are reasonably satisfied with the existing service but that's now and that position will deteriorate because the West Coast main line is full! That means there is no space to run additional services and that there is no resilience - the slightest thing goes wrong and the whole system falls apart.

Between 1995/6 and 2017/8 rail passenger journeys in the North West grew by 237%. London and Birmingham trains are becoming increasingly overcrowded at peak time. Bearing in mind HS2 is not expected to fully reach us until 2032, it will deal with overcrowding, create space for more local and intermediary services, and for freight.

HS2 appears expensive but all major infrastructure projects look expensive, not least because the UK has massively underinvested in transport for decades. We need to recognise this is investment for the rest of the century and beyond. For comparison, the oldest parts of the current West Coast mainline are almost 200 years old, built before Victoria became queen. Think of HS2 on those time horizons and suddenly it doesn't look anywhere near as expensive.

Some people suggest we should we prioritise northern powerhouse rail (NPR) or smaller cheaper improvements instead? That is the sort of lack of ambition that will keep the North lagging behind economically. Yes we need smaller, quicker to deliver improvements like platforms 15/16 at Piccadilly Station and a trans pennine upgrade, but they will only buy us time until larger scale improvements can be made. We also need to start thinking about a railway network, not just individual lines, and we will only get anywhere near maximum benefit from HS2 and NPR by having both working together as part of the same system.

Ultimately, if the UK is serious about accelerating growth in the North to bridge the productivity gap with London and the South East, it will only do it by investing in HS2, NPR, the improvements needed to deliver the existing northern rail franchises, and in local transport plans. The North should demand nothing less.

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