Documents to download

Background

Better east-west connectivity across the North of England has been the subject of public and parliamentary debate for some time, with various proposals put forward over the last decade. Initially, there was discussion of HS3, a new high-speed line between Manchester and Leeds. In October 2014, the Coalition Government gave its backing for proposals for HS3 to be developed. Gradually, however, these proposals evolved beyond HS3 to encompass a wider network rail connections between northern cities. Since 2015, proposals for NPR have coalesced around the idea of the Northern Powerhouse, the Government’s vision for a “super-connected, globally competitive northern economy”, hence the name Northern Powerhouse Rail.

Transport for the North (TfN), the region’s sub-national transport body, and the Coalition Government first set out their vision for Northern Powerhouse Rail in their Northern Transport Strategy in 2015. Successive administrations have continued to support and fund the programme.

The Conservative Party’s manifesto for the 2019 General Election promised to “build Northern Powerhouse Rail between Leeds and Manchester and then focus on Liverpool, Tees Valley, Hull, Sheffield and Newcastle.” Decisions about the future of the project have, however, been entangled in debates and reviews over the future of HS2. The Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in February 2020, confirmed the Government’s intention to proceed with NPR and HS2. To decide how to phase these and other rail projects in the Midlands and North, the Government promised to develop an Integrated Rail Plan, informed by an assessment of the region’s rail needs by the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC).

The Government’s proposals for the Northern Powerhouse Rail network

In November 2021, the Government decided to proceed with a core Northern Powerhouse Rail network between Liverpool and York, as part of its Integrated Rail Plan for the North and the Midlands. This network will consist of a new high-speed line between Warrington, Manchester and Yorkshire, ending near Marsden, and upgrades to existing rail lines, and some stations, on the remainder of the route. The network will be delivered in phases, with most of the project due to be completed in the 2030s and 2040s, at an estimated cost of £17.2 billion (in 2019 prices).

NPR is designed to address problems with rail infrastructure in the North of England. The North of England has historically received less investment in transport infrastructure than other parts of the country, based on the think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research North’s analysis. The NIC and others have commented that ageing infrastructure, bottlenecks and capacity constraints hamper the performance of the rail services in the North of England, which are generally slower and less reliable than in other parts of the country.

Better rail connections, built as part of NPR, are intended to help achieve the Government’s Levelling-Up agenda and its 2050 Net Zero target. Much of the debate surrounding NPR, especially since November 2021, has focused on the extent to which the Government’s proposals will help solve these challenges.

The Government’s NPR network is focused on improving connections between the region’s three largest economic areas (Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region and West Yorkshire), based on its analysis that improving these links will deliver the majority of the benefits from the NPR project. The Government’s chosen network is less extensive than TfN’s preferred option, which consisted of a wider network of connections spanning east-west across the north.

The Government has sought to balance the economic benefits of NPR against the likely costs of the project and the value of other rail schemes. For example,  in December 2020 the NIC estimated that all the rail improvements proposed in the Midlands and the North would cost between £140-£185 billion (in 2019 prices) from 2020 and 2045. They advised that prioritising regional links, such as NPR, would deliver greater benefits than longer distance ones. Given the ongoing uncertainty around future demand for rail after the Covid-19 pandemic, they also recommended that the Government should select a core pipeline of investments, which could be added to later. The Government, in line with the NIC’s advice, has not ruled out the possibility of extra schemes being added to the core NPR network in future, depending on their affordability and other criteria.

Commentary

The Government’s proposals have been criticised by northern leaders and opposition parties. Critics argued that the Government’s pipeline is the wrong solution for the North and not in line with its previous promises. For example, the Labour Party criticised the Government suggesting that by “downgrading Northern Powerhouse Rail” ministers had “broken their promise to upgrade vital transport infrastructure in full in the North.”

On 18 November 2021, 30 local leaders, including metro mayors and councillors, wrote to Prime Minister Boris Johnson arguing that the Government’s decisions in the Integrated Rail Plan, including on Northern Powerhouse Rail, risk “holding back” regional economies and “compromising” their ability to reduce emissions. TfN’s statutory advice to Government on 25 November 2021 described its board’s “collective disappointment and dismay” at the proposals, which they argue do not address capacity constraints on the rail network and fail to provide better connections on several strategic corridors across the North of England.

Further reading

More information about NPR, HS2 and transport infrastructure projects in general can be found in the Library’s following briefing papers:


Documents to download

Related posts

  • Southeastern railway timetable changes

    A debate has been scheduled in Westminster Hall from 2.30pm on Tuesday 6 December, on changes to the Southeastern railway timetable. The debate will be opened by Clive Efford MP.

    Southeastern railway timetable changes
  • Rail FAQs

    This briefing answers Frequently Asked Questions about the railways in Great Britain, including railway ownership and funding; timetabling; the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail; ticket fare increases; HS2; Northern Powerhouse Rail; and railway electrification.

    Rail FAQs