York enjoys continued rail investment, but wider regional transformation remains in doubt


Recognition of the vital importance of upgrading the North's rail infrastructure is stalling, suggests Josh Cole.

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Image by George Hodan

By Josh Cole

At the end of February, London North Eastern Railway (LNER) submitted the first round of plans for the redevelopment of York train station. This proposal is set to ease the heavy traffic around the station in particular, and is part of a York City Council funded scheme designed to regenerate the area around York station. This comes after upgrade work conducted on the York to Newcastle stretch of the East Coast Mainline, the main track that connects London to Edinburgh, across the autumn and winter of 2022 and the renewing of nearly 3km of track around York station between Christmas and New Year.

These upgrades are indicative of the serious investment that is being poured into the local area, as the recognition of York’s capacity for economic growth is being matched by a programme of targeted funding. Similar initiatives are being launched across the North, with the much anticipated TransPennine Route Upgrade providing much needed focus and investment to rail infrastructure. However, in the midst of this, the truly transformational regional rail projects have currently been shelved by the government for the moment. When looking at the incredible effects that the newly opened Elizabeth Line has had for commuters and residents in Greater London, lobby groups representing Northern politicians and business groups have stressed that the need for genuine vision in our region’s infrastructure plans is more important than ever.

As it stands, railways in Britain are extraordinarily centralised, in that everything leads to and from London. Accordingly, travelling from north to south, and vice versa, is fairly straightforward and travellers going in these directions are able to enjoy fast, regular and reliable services. The long term investment that has been made on these routes has, however, never been matched for infrastructure allowing people to travel across the country from East to West. This is particularly pronounced for those travelling across the Pennines, and it’s no surprise that the most cancelled services are in this area. Rail companies that operate on this route such as Avanti West Coast, TransPennine Express and Northern Rail are serial offenders, with them reducing their total number of services by 37 percent from 2018 to 2022 yet still suffering from record numbers of cancelled services.

This has many roots, not least because these companies have historically relied on their drivers working overtime to make up for staffing shortages. But more widely, it's a question of physical infrastructure. The Northern Powerhouse Rail group, a rail focused consortium of local government and business leaders spun out of the coalition era Northern Powerhouse project, have commented that the lack of a proper mainline going east to west means that all services go through what are effectively branch lines. This means that trains have to travel slower and can’t take as many passengers as services going in and out from London. This situation, which Rail Minister Huw Merriman MP in November described as needing “root and branch reform” to stave off the risk of “permanent decline,” has seen the roll out of key upgrades across the North. The key programme that York has benefitted from is the TransPennine Route Upgrade, which is set to fully electrify the line between Manchester, Huddersfield, Leeds and York and has included big ticket plans like the upgrade of Leeds station, track upgrades between Huddersfield and York, as well as improving the connection between York and Leeds itself. This programme will help to improve local connections, and afford travellers a greater sense of reliability in the network and go some way to rectifying the £400 million per annum loss that the northern economy has experienced due to disruption.

These improvements are clearly much needed, yet many advocates in business and local government have remained disappointed at the continued stalling on the key region wide projects that could finally unlock the North’s economic potential after decades of underinvestment. One of the central pillars of the Northern Powerhouse is the development of the High Speed 2 (HS2) railway which originally intended to provide faster links from London to key midlands and northern cities like Leeds, Birmingham, and Manchester. Within this was the absolutely critical plan to invest heavily in developing commuter routes between the northern cities themselves. Two years ago, the planned 140 km route from the East Midlands Parkway (EMP) in Nottingham was scrapped and currently there are plans to look at scrapping the 60 km route from Birmingham to EMP itself. At the start of February, government announced further funding cuts as they seek to rein in ballooning costs, with the target finish date for the first phase being pushed back from 2029 to 2033, and the second phase connecting Manchester and the, now under review, eastern leg to Birmingham pushed back from 2033 to anytime between 2035 to 2041. Turning away from HS2, a similar approach has been taken to the proposed high speed plans submitted by the Northern Powerhouse Rail Group, where the planned £43 billion network running from Liverpool to Leeds and including a new station at Bradford, has also been scrapped. Instead, this has been substituted for a new and cheaper 40 mile line running from Warrington to Marsden and a general commitment to continually upgrading existing infrastructure.

In 2021, the Department for Transport, then led by Grant Shapps MP, published the government’s rail plan which stated plainly that the UK is in dire need of a network that reliably runs on time. Given the chaos that passengers have endured on the northern networks for years, this is clearly true and the upgrades that have already been launched will certainly make a key difference. The impact has already been felt locally in York and will be key for ensuring that the north is brought up to a standard that makes it possible for people to invest a sense of trust in the railways. But the underinvestment in railways connecting the cities that historically were the engines of the British economy will continue to hold back economic growth. Genuine transformation projects, like HS2 as it was originally planned and the Liverpool to Hull high speed line, could give the northern economy a connectivity that it has not enjoyed for decades. Whilst local investments and upgrades as we’ve experienced in York are vital, the north’s full potential cannot be realised without a comprehensive approach to investment.