Row brewing over new body to speed rail infrastructure in the north

One of TransPennine Express's new Nova 1 trains.

A row appears to be brewing over transport secretary Grant Shapps’ announcement of £600m for investment in northern railways and the creation of a new Northern Transport Acceleration Council (NTAC) to speed up the delivery of major projects, with Transport for the North calling the proposals “confused”.

The Department for Transport (DfT) today announced £589m to kickstart work on the Transpennine main line between Leeds, Huddersfield and Manchester alongside the establishment of a new Northern Transport Acceleration Council, dedicated to accelerating vital infrastructure projects and better connecting communities across the north’s towns and cities.

The most congested section of the route will be doubled from two to four tracks, allowing fast trains to overtake slower ones, improving journey times and reliability for passengers across the north. Most of the line will be electrified but the DfT says it wants to go further. Full electrification, digital signalling, more multi-tracking and improved freight capacity are now under consideration as part of an "Integrated Rail Plan" due to report in December.  

One of the new NTAC’s main aims will be to fast-track the long-awaited trans-Pennine upgrade and Shapps’ announcement comes hard on the heels of weekend press reports suggesting that ministers were not happy with the progress being made by Transport for the North (TfN) and there was a belief that the organisation had done little to bring forward rail upgrades. The government appear to see NTAC as key to delivering Boris Johnson’s “Project Speed” promise to speed up delivery of infrastructure upgrades, with a government minister due to sit on the council, which will meet for the first time iin September.

For its part, TfN said that it was working with political and industry leaders across the north and was looking to gain more powers, but that its powers were limited by government when they set it up. Speaking at the weekend, TfN chief executive Barry White said that Whitehall already controlled the delivery of major rail projects and it was unclear how they could speed them up. “Let’s be clear, the Department for Transport already controls every aspect of rail upgrades in the north - funding decisions, business case processes and oversight of Network Rail,” he said.

“The government has direct control of every element that sets the speed of delivery,” said White. While he welcomed any investment in the north and anything to speed it up, he said “these proposals seem to be rather confused as to where the speeding up is needed”.

Marcus Johns from IPPR North said that TfN and other leaders in the north wanted the ability to make local decisions that put passengers first and run a railway that responds to local needs. “Let’s work together, to empower and properly fund the north to make its own decisions on its infrastructure future, through our leaders and Transport for the North,” he said.

Transport secretary and Northern Powerhouse minister Grant Shapps said: “People across the north rightly expect action, progress and ambition, and this government is determined to accelerate improvements as we invest billions to level up the region’s infrastructure. We are determined to build back better at pace and this new council will allow us to engage collectively and directly with elected northern leaders to build the vital projects the region is crying out for.”  

Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, said: “This feels like a gear change from the government in the delivery of transport improvements in the north of England and I welcome the new drive that the transport secretary is bringing to this. People here deserve a modern, reliable public transport system and it is my hope that the Northern Transport Acceleration Council will bring forward the day when that is a reality. It is crucial that the council listens to the voice of the north and is accountable to people here through their elected politicians and bodies such as Transport for the North."

Meanwhile, rail industry representatives welcomed Shapps’ proposals. Darren Caplan, chief executive of the Railway Industry Association (RIA), said: “The announcement on progressing the Trans Pennine route upgrade and the establishment of a Northern Transport Acceleration Council are both positive signs that the government is serious about the role of rail schemes in generating an economic recovery following the coronavirus outbreak. These announcements shows a clear impetus to make rail a central part of the government’s ‘build, build, build’ agenda.

“The RIA and our members urge the government to ensure the delivery of the Trans Pennine route upgrade and work on other northern routes, supports the goal of decarbonising the UK rail network by 2040. This will require the electrification of intensively used routes, like Trans Pennine, as well as the deployment of low carbon, self-powered rolling stock across the network. So we call on the government to make a speedy decision committing to the full electrification of the Trans Pennine route as part of a rolling programme across the network, to ensure rail investment delivers not only an economic recovery, but also leaves an environmental legacy for all of the UK."

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