Northern Powerhouse Rail’s role in levelling-up the North

3 min read

Some commentators and politicians have suggested that the Covid-19 pandemic and the mass shift to home working will spell the end for large new transport infrastructure schemes and perhaps projects like Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR).

This mindset is wrong for three main reasons:

  1. Now that the novelty of working from home has firmly departed and has been replaced by a combination of monotony and ‘cabin fever’, many workers are keen to get back into the office for the social interaction, change of scenery and to reinstate the clear home/work divide.

  2. Even with a shift to one or two days working from home each week, the existing rail network is already failing after decades of neglect and underinvestment. Statistics published just before the pandemic from the Office of Road and Rail show that around half of Northern services and two thirds of those operated by TransPennine Express were late. In total, for the year 2019-20, there were 500 days worth of time delays due to infrastructure failures and problems.

  3. Areas become more productive as they specialise, get access to more skilled talent and pool resources. In total, the North’s economy is worth nearly £400bn to the UK – not too dissimilar to London – and is home to over 15 million people. However, productivity is impacted due to long travel times, unreliable journeys and poor connections.

Factor in these three points and it is arguable that the only way to overcome them is through substantial new investment across a range of transport modes, not least rail. It’s a position the government made clear in the recent Williams-Shapps plan for rail. 

So, if we accept that large investments like NPR are still needed, our attention and energy should move from re-arguing old ground to how to maximise its benefits. It is undeniable that NPR will support business growth, create jobs, boost productivity, and help families better stay in touch.

With the new Chief Executive Martin Tugwell now in post, I am sure that he and others at Transport for the North (TfN) will be thinking about how to ensure their schemes are central to the government’s levelling-up agenda.

Firstly, NPR has the potential to provide a direct boost to the economy, if the project sufficiently engages with local schools, colleges, Job Centres and SMEs so that a substantial number of the roles required, through from preparation to delivery, go to local people. With enough notice, education providers and businesses can create the right courses and apprenticeships to allow Northerners to play a major role in delivering their future.

Secondly, the scheme, once open, will help reduce travel times and delays while increasing the range of commuting opportunities for local people, bringing communities closer together. The Department for Transport (DfT) and TfN need to keep firmly in their minds that NPR is about the people it serves and not a piece of physical infrastructure. Working with local people and businesses to ensure this once in a lifetime opportunity delivers maximum benefits will be essential.

Thirdly, DfT and HM Treasury need to provide details of the long-term funding settlement for NPR. Many infrastructure projects are funded in ‘dribs and drabs’, with Ministers often skimping on the upfront investment required to properly develop out and cost a scheme. This can stifle innovation and cause costs to rise over time. A more sustainable funding package and pipeline of work would also allow businesses and supply chains to scale up and invest in new jobs and training. We await the long-anticipated Integrated Rail Plan for the North and Midlands, hoping for clarity.

Finally, businesses and local people need to keep the pressure on Ministers and senior civil servants to ensure that works done to date are not discounted or dismissed. All large schemes take time to deliver and, undoubtedly, key people in central government will change, bringing their own agendas and focus. One of the dangers of the political cycle is the demand to announce something ‘new’ and to break from the past.

While language may change from the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ to ‘levelling-up’ and on to the next political catchphrase, the strategic case for NPR is strong. It enjoys support from across the political spectrum and from Northern businesses (with a survey of business leaders naming it their most important transport project).

NPR can be a powerful force for good, playing a significant role in achieving the levelling-up agenda. What we need now is a laser focus from central government on making it a reality, ensuring that the project is not knocked off course by political machinations of game playing in order for it to deliver on its desired outcomes.