Wednesday, 27 February 2019

Transport for the North's long term ambition

Last week I wrote about the “Building the North's New Railways” report which was launched at an event hosted by the Northern Rail Industry Leaders. Within the piece I described some of the challenges that are facing the industry, as set out in the report and how the industry is looking to work together in order to deliver rail upgrades across the North. In this blog I want to look more broadly at what a “Northern Powerhouse Railway” may look like and look at the wider transport planning framework as set out by Transport for the North.

First of all I should point out that the headline £70bn figure for transport investment between 2020 and 2050 covers both rail and road upgrades and is formed in part by money that it is already assumed will be invested in the North over the period. TfN assumes that £39-43bn will be invested in the North based on current levels of committed investment outlined in the Highways England Road Investment Strategy and Network Rail’s Control Period. This means a further £21-37bn will be required if TfN is to deliver the upgrades it says are needed to the road and rail network across the North. The £70bn figure is a huge sum of money, however it equates to only £2.3bn of investment each year over the next 30 years.

If current levels of committed investment are continued to 2050, £1.3bn to £1.4bn will be invested per year over the period. Therefore TfN are seeking a further £900m per year in order to achieve a full package of road and rail upgrades which would go far beyond that which Highways England and Network Rail have already proposed.

It is now up to Transport for the North to prove that there is a viable business case for the proposals that it is suggesting. The NRIL report forms a crucial part of proving the business case as TfN and NRIL need to demonstrate that there will be sufficient numbers of skilled workers in place in order to undertake such a large package of works in the North over 30 years. Without having the workforce in place and without investment in new technologies, schedules could slip and costs could spiral.

Over the past few years I have written at length about the challenges that face not just the North, but the UK as a whole. The Northwest Electrification Programme and GWML electrification, which both ended up over budged and years behind schedule demonstrate what can happen if there are not enough skilled workers in place to undertake the work that is being proposed.

Now that TfN and NRIL have identified the challenges and are now seeking to ensure that the industry trains enough new workers and invests in new innovative technologies, it may just be possible that the ambitious plan set out by TfN can be achieved

So let's take a look at what is being proposed....


Rail forms a key part of TfN's plan as infrastructure improvements in the right places can bring about transformational benefits to the entire region. Cutting journey times and increasing capacity on the railways would serve to encourage people to switch from road to rail and help to bring the north


Electrification of the Pennine route between Manchester and Leeds has been talked about for years and was supposed to form part of Network Rails Control Period 5 (CP5) package of upgrades. However due in part to the issues raised above and in my previous blog, this hasn't happened and at one point it looked as if electrification had been scrapped all together

So far Network Rail has upgraded signalling and stations at key locations along the Calder Valley route. These upgrades should provide benefits to passengers when new trains finally begin to arrive in the North, starting from this year. I will be taking a look at the improvements that have already been completed in detail in a future blog.

Plans for what is now being called the Transpennine Route Upgrade (TRU) have been submitted to the Department for Transport for considerations, which it is hope will include electrification. The £3bn package of works aims to, in the words of Network Rail deliver “faster, longer, more frequent and more reliable services across the north of England, from Newcastle, Hull and York towards Manchester and Liverpool via Leeds”. Work is expected to begin in spring/summer 2019 and take up to 5 years to complete.

Transport for the North's own proposals which are much larger in scope are set to be submitted to the Government for review in 2020 and it is hoped that if approved work could start in 2024. The points below taken from the TfN's Strategic Transport Plan shows the scale of the ambition that TfN has. The building of new lines, stations and significant upgrades are proposed to take place between 2020/4 and 2050. Links are proposed to connect HS2 to a new Northern Powerhouse Rail which will provide connectivity from Liverpool to Hull.

  • A new twin-track line linking Liverpool to HS2 and onwards to Manchester and other Northern cities, via Warrington and Manchester Airport
  • Significant upgrades and integration with HS2 linking Leeds and Sheffield
  • Significant upgrades between Sheffield, Leeds and Hull
  • Significant upgrades of the Hope Valley corridor between Manchester and Sheffield 
  • Significant upgrades between Newcastle and Leeds 
  • Hub concepts for Northern Powerhouse Rail stations

Ultimately TfN suggest that “all passenger routes to be served by a minimum two trains per hour. Long distance services to achieve average journey speeds of at least 80mph. Inter-urban services to achieve average journey speeds of at least 60mph. Local and suburban services to achieve average journey speeds of at least 40mph. Rail to directly serve each of the North’s international airports. Infrastructure to be available to enable a weekday inter-peak level service on Sundays and public holidays. Major ports in the North to be served by a network that will support movement and future growth of rail freight. A 50% improvement in the average speed of freight services by 2028.”

It is hoped that a new line connecting Leeds and Manchester could deliver a Leeds to Manchester journey time of 40 minutes and a York to Manchester journey time of 62 minutes. As for capacity, TfN suggests six inter-urban services per hour should operate formed of eight carriages, and up to two local services per hour should operate, in both directions.

[Click to enlarge]

Map source: Trnasport for the North's final strategic transport plan 2019

  1. Junction on HS2 mainline for Leeds – North East services
  2. Junction on HS2 Leeds spur to facilitate through services via existing Leeds station
  3. Junction on HS2 mainline for Sheffield – Leeds services 
  4. Junction at Manchester Piccadilly to support Northern Powerhouse Rail platforms
  5. Junction on HS2 Manchester spur for Manchester – Liverpool services
  6. South facing junction on HS2 mainline for London – Liverpool services
  • Light Puplre - Upgrades
  • Dark Purple - Transpennine Upgrade
  • Light Green - Northern Powerhouse Rail new line
  • Dark Green - Linking Liverpool to HS2
  • Blue - HS2


Reading the report it doesn't seem as if there is one grand proposal which will connect East with West, however a number of individual schemes are being assessed. Proposals range from grade separation of the A69/A68 and A69/A6079 junctions through to building a new link road connecting the A534 west of Congleton with the A536 to the north.

What is clear though is that road schemes are equally susceptible to cuts as they are for rail. For example schemes to improve the M62 and M53 have been in the words of the report “re-scoped”. Now to be honest I don't know what that means in the context of the report, but to me it sounds like kicked into the long grass?

Proposals to improve the the M56 between Altrincham and Manchester which were due to begin in 2019 have been delayed to 2020 (or after the completion of works taking place on the M62 between junctions 10-12), Highway's England states that the decision was “based on feedback from our customers and stakeholders of their experiences on our network

Highway England has reassessed the SMART motorway upgrade as a whole and as a result the upgrade of the M6 between junctions 21a-26 has been deferred, with no new start date given. However the completion date for the upgrade of the M62 between junctions 10 and 12 remains unchanged as work is already underway and is due for completion in spring 2020. The start date for work between junctions 20 and 25 of the M62 also remains unchanged and will commence in Autumn 2019.

Proposals to dual the remaining sections of single carriageway on the full length of the A66 from the A1(M) to the M6 are still in the planning phase. However in the meantime major improvements should be made to two junctions on the A69 and should be completed by 2020

A study into the area which covers the M60, M62, M602, M61 and M66 has concluded that there is a strong case for the “substantial” upgrade to the M60 to improve journey times and East–West connectivity.

It looks like the proposal to construct a Trans-Pennine tunnel connecting Manchester and Sheffield have been thrown out, TfN states that “although a long tunnel under the Peak District National Park would be technically feasible, the cost would be prohibitive and offer poor value for money”. TfN is now working on an alternative which includes proposals for partially tunnelled route on the line of the existing A628 and enhancements to M60, M67, M1 and M18/A1.

I must admit to skimming over some of the 86 page report, but I got the feeling that while road enhancements form part of the proposed £70bn investment, the vision on how they can be improved in order to connect East and West was not as clearly defined as the vision for rail enhancements.

Hopefully over the coming 12 months we will begin to get a clearer picture of what Transport for the North is proposing and whether or not the Government will release the additional £21-37bn over 30 years that TfN is asking for.

My thoughts about SMART

To be honest I'm not sure if the postponement of SMART upgrades is a blessing or a curse, anecdotal evidence from regular commuters suggests that SMART just doesn't work. People complain of the hard shoulder not being used by motorist even when it is open to traffic and dangerous changes to speed restrictions between gantries (when working in combination with speed cameras).

My experiences of SMART is on the M6 heading into Birmingham and I did see cars sat in lanes 2, 3 and 4 driving below the speed limit when lanes 1 (hard shoulder open at the time), 2 and 3 were clear. Never mind middle lane hogging, witnessing lane 3 and 4 hogging while drivers were driving under speed limit and the carriageway ahead was clear, was a new one on me.

I have also experienced the speed limit changes, with gantries displaying speeds of 60mph, which would then drop at the next gantry to 40mph, with speed cameras in operation. This speed differential causes drivers to use the brakes, which has the potential to lead to the dreaded “phantom traffic jam”, which leads to congestion. Highways England say that gantry signals should be sufficiently visible that drivers have the time to slow down without braking, but I would dispute that statement. Reducing the speed of a car or indeed HGV by 20mph from the time of seeing the gantry sign to reaching the gantry and possible speed camera is difficult.

I do fully understand the principles behind the SMART motorway, controlling the speed of traffic has been shown to smooth the flow and opening the hard shoulder in effect increases capacity without the need to widen the motorway. But sometime what looks good on paper doesn't always translate to the real world, not when you factor in driver behaviour (or misbehaviour).

Maybe it's a case of driver education, many people haven't even driven on a SMART motorway yet and would not be fully aware of the rules when they do enter a sections of SMART motorway. But I also believe better policing of lane hogging drivers is needed and that a more gradual decrease in speed between gantries could also help.

The TfN report can be found here:

Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

 For more information 

Thursday, 21 February 2019

Northern Rail Industry Leaders, Building the North's New Railway

We want a faster, more reliable, high capacity railway in the North and "we deserve it" the words of Mike Hulme Co-chair of the Northern Rail Industry Leaders speaking today at the launch of the "Building the North's New Railways" report. I'm certain these words will resonate with any commuters from the North who perhaps looks to South at projects like Crossrail and think, why haven't we got a Crossrail of the North?

As a passionate campaigner and supporter of the railways, but still, somewhat of an outsider, it was fascinating to hear what each of the speakers had to say as to why the North does not yet have its own Crossrail. I came away with a clearer understanding of the challenges facing the industry which could act to stifle investment in transport in the North, but also a sense that we are at the cusp of a seismic shift in the future of the railways right across the North.

Mike Hulm, Co-chair of NRIL

But first I want to skip to the very end of the conference, I was the guy sitting at the back who asked the awkward question, a straightforward question I thought about improvements to the Oxford Rd to Manchester Piccadilly corridor, which as far as I knew was up until fairly recently a shovel ready project which was almost about to begin. My two-part question, was "what has happened to the project" and "are they starting from scratch?" with regards to design and funding of the project, which at one stage formed the backbone of what was called Northern Hub. Admittedly possibly a question for another time, however, I asked the question, the room fell silent breifly, but I did get answer of sorts (no disrespect to Mr. Wood who did answer) but he said that the area in question is particularly challenging, with high-frequency passenger services mixed with slow-moving freight trains powered sometimes by diesel, sometime electric, which means that untangling the corridor is not straight forward, adding we will know more in the summer...

Why bring this up? One, my own curiosity, but also to get a sense of where Transport for the North is up to with regards to investment and unblocking a bottleneck at a key part of the East-West railway network. The answer I got though did underline one of the challenges facing the North as a whole, the East-West corridor is extremely congested, it serves, local, regional, intercity and freight services all competing for only a finite number of train paths. It would seem then that providing greater capacity and reduced journey time is a monumental challenge. But a challenge TfN and those within the industry are willing to take on in order to unlock a potential prize of £100bn worth of economic benefits by 2050.

Q and A  panel from left to  right 
  • Mike Hulme, Co-chair NRIL
  • Justin Moss, Co-Chair NRIL
  • Tim Wood, Transport for the North
  • Lucy Prior, RTS solution
  • Daniel Cochlin, Head of External Affairs Northern Powerhouse Partnership
  • Professor Simon Iwnicki, University of Huddersfield
The focus of the report however, wasn't directly about the technical challenges or what Northern Power House Rail will look like, it was about something often overlooked and something which as it turns out could potentially be a greater hurdle than the engineering changelings that lay ahead. Northern Powerhouse Rail Director Tim Wood said something that is crucial for future of rail investment in the North; that the Treasury will not release funds if TfN cannot prove that there is the skilled workforce in place to undertake the improvements that are being proposed.

When people talk about investment, they usually talk about how much a project will cost or how the Government should invest more in the North. What I took from the speaker's comments is that Government is willing to invest but there is a massive skills shortage facing the industry and it is up to the industry to train the skilled engineers required to undertake such a massive undertaking as connecting East and West with a fast, high frequency rail network

In response the industry via this report seems to be saying that they need a steady stream of work so that they can be confident enough to invest in training the thousands of workers needed, not just engineers on the ground but, architects, project managers and procurement professionals, to name but a few. Not only that the but also to invest in new technologies that will be required to help deliver additional capacity, better customer interfaces and help to deliver projects on time and on budget.

This potentially could leave the industry, TfN and Government at an impasse with neither the Treasury or industry willing to budge. However, and now comes the good news, the industry has taken up the challenge and in the words of Mark Hulme, "today is a call to arms". A call from the 8 companies who helped produced the report to the industry, from SMEs and large companies to Universities and government bodies, on how the industry as a whole can overcome the shortages of skilled men and woman and how they can use technology and big data to improve efficiency.

Throughout the report and today's talks there was a common theme, that the industry needs a smooth and stable pipeline of work, with a working figure of between £2b and £3bn each year over 30 years. But also crucially that industry if willing to change, modernise and train the skilled workforce needed in order to deliver a transformation upgrade of railways across the North.

It's worth mentioning not once did I hear the phrase we need HS3 (Northern Powerhouse Rail) instead of HS2, it's clear to business leaders and the rail industry in the North that we need both. In the words of Tim Wood "we need HS2 and we need East West capacity as well, it is about capacity not just speed"

In the next blog I hope to set out key objectives of the report and if there are any clues as to what a new Northern Powerhouse East-West railway might look like.

One last quote to finish on, which gives a good sense of the mood within the industry in the North currently; "Northern Power House Rail and HS2 are coming and we need to be ready" Tim Wood

Read part 2: Transport for the North's long term ambition

Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

 For more information 

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Airbus Beluga XL first visit to the UK

On Friday 15th of February 2019 the Beluga XL made its first visit to Airbus'  Broughton manufacturing facility in the UK. This was in fact, the first time the new replacement for the existing Beluga aircraft had visited the UK since it first rolled off the production line in January 2018. Since 2018 the Beluga has undergone ground testing culminating in its maiden flight in July 2018 after which it underwent a rigorous flight test certification campaign.

Beluga XL F-WBXL is the first of 5 super transporters to be built in order to carry aircraft sections between the various manufacturing facilities spread right across Europe. The new Beluga XL aircraft will work alongside the existing Beluga fleet until they are finally withdrawn in 2021.

Once the Belgua XL is fully commissioned it will become a regular visitor to Broughton as has its predecessor for more than 20 years. The Broughton facility manufactures wings for all of Airbus's commercial aircraft including the A350 and A380.

[click to enlarge]
First dummy landing approaching Broughton

One of the main constraints with the existing Beluga fleet is their wing carrying capacity, currently only able to carry 1 A350 Extra Wide Body wing at a time. The Beluga XL with 30% more capacity than the existing Beluga will be able to carry 2 A350XWB wings at a time to the aircraft manufacturing facility in Toulouse.

While the large bulbous upper fuselage was manufactured specifically for the Beluga XL, the aircraft actually uses other sections from existing Airbus commercial jets. Its aft sections for example is based on the A330-300 while the forward section on the A330-200. The floor structure which is reinforced comes from the A300-200F which is the freighter variant of the A330-200.

Airbus Beluga XL facts and figures
  • Length: 63.1 m
  • Wingspan: 60.3 m
  • Height: 18.9 m
  • Capacity 50,500 kg
  • Max takeoff weight: 227,000 kg
  • Cargo hold: 2,209 cubic metres
  • Engines: 2 × Rolls-Royce Trent 700
  • Cruise speed: 737 km/h (458 mph) 


None of the existing or new Belugas have or will have the ability to carry the wings for the A380 Super Jumbo, they have always been transported from the factory over land and sea. The journey begins by special barge along the River Dee to the Port of Mostyn, at which stage the wings are loaded onto a roll-on/roll-off vessel for the journey by sea to the French port of Pauillac. From there they are transferred to another barge which carries them up the Garonne River from Pauillac to Langon. The last section of the journey to the factory in Toulouse is completed by road.

Sadly it was announced on the same day as the Beluga XL visited the UK, that Airbus will stop making the A380, surely a bitter bittersweet day for the employees at Broughton and around the UK who currently manufacture parts for the A380. Airbus will stop making the A380 in 2021 after it has delivered the final super jumbo to Emirates. It is unclear how this will impact on jobs at Broughton as it will continue (as far I know) to make wings for all of Airbus' other commercial airliners. However the future of those workers involved in the complex logistics by road, river and sea is less clear.

Although the end of A380 production is concerning news for employees throughout Airbus, the fact that the Beluga XL is being built specifically to help support the ramp-up in production of the A350XWB should come as some comfort to the 12,000 skilled men and women who work for Airbus in the UK alone.

Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

 For more information 

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Northern Gateway, Deeside

Progress is finally beginning to be made on the multi-million pound Northern Gateway scheme for which outline planning permission was first granted for housing development, a hotel and technology park back in 2013.

Since then the only visible sign of progress was the completion in 2016 of an access road leading from the B5441 Welsh Road, for which £3.1m was awarded by the Welsh Government. Since then it appeared as if the project had stalled and the road sat unused, however work to clear the land ready for development is now well underway.

A key part of the North Gateway scheme is a 140-acre development lead by Praxis Real Estate Management Ltd. The scheme has outline planning permission for the development consisting of B2 general industrial units and B8 Storage or distribution units, with industrial units ranging in size from 50,000 sq ft up to 1,000,000 sq ft.

[click to enlarge] 

D Morgan PLC which had previously constructed the link road is now the principal contractor for The Airfields development and has already begun work to clear the site. The image below shows the scale of the works that has already been undertaken.

[click to enlarge] 

As well as The Airfields development, detailed proposals have also been submitted by developer Pochin to build 134 houses on the former Corus steelworks site located in Garden City. It is proposed that a total of 725 homes will be constructed over a period of 9 years on the site.

If the full scope of the Northern Gateway development can be realised it is hoped that 5000 jobs will be created in total. If this is to be achieved it is vital that transport links to Northern Gateway and Deeside Industrial Park are improved.

[click to enlarge]  

So far it has been announced that “Red Option” which aims to reduce congestion on the A494 to A55 corridor has been chosen to be taken forward to the planning phase. Enhancements along the A548 and a new section of road to be constructed connecting the Flintshire bridge to the A55 will vastly improve the vital link to Holyhead and help to reduce congestion on the section of the A494 known as Drome Corner leading to Aston Hill.

Plans to improve public transport are also being explored with a proposal put forward to improve Hawarden Bridge station on the Wrexham Bidston line which would serve the Garden City/Corus steelworks development. In addition, plans have been taken forward to explore the feasibility of building a new station on the Wrexham Bidston line that would serve the Deeside Industrial Park

The new station known as Deeside Parkway would be located near to the UPM paper mill and Great Bear distribution centre. If the new station was constructed not only would it provide access for workers from the Wirral and North East Wales to access the Deeside Industrial Park, but it could also serve as a park and ride facility for residents from Flint and Connah's Quay who wish to travel by rail to Liverpool, which has the potential to reduce congestion on the Welsh road leading to the M53. The provision of shuttle buses to serve the Deeside and Garden City areas area are also being considered as part of a wider public transport strategy.

If the plans can be delivered in conjunction with improvements to road and rail links then Northern Gateway has the potential to have far-reaching economic benefits and provide employment not just North East Wales but also the Wirral and Cheshire West. I hope to able to follow the development over the coming years.

[click to enlarge] 

Monday, 11 February 2019

HS2 will benefit towns and cities north of Birmingham!

[Updated September 2020]

It is often inferred incorrectly by some news outlets and opponents of HS2 that it is "just a line from London to Birmingham", notwithstanding the fact that legislation is currently making its way through parliament for HS2 to reach Crewe by 2027 and Manchester and Leeds by 2033, it has, in fact, always been the case that HS2 will benefit towns and cities north of Birmingham, and indeed north of Manchester and Leeds, with benefits reaching as far north as Preston, York, Newcastle, Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Technically speaking phase one should be described as a dedicated high-speed railway from London Euston, to a junction which joins the West Coast Main Line (WCML) located at Handsacre, north of Lichfield, with a high-speed spur to Birmingham City centre. Why is this definition important? Because first and foremost it more accurately describes what is currently being constructed, but also, critically it highlights the potential for services to travel further north by connecting HS2 to the WCML.

It has always been envisaged that what were called "classic compatible" trains would leave the core HS2 network and join the WCML initially at the junction constructed north of Lichfield, these trains would then be able to travel onwards (all be it at "conventional" speeds) to places such as Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, Edinburgh and stations in between.

[Update] This blog was written before the findings of the Oakervee Review were published, prior to which it was assumed HS2 services would join the WCML at Handsacre junction. It has since been suggested that classic compatible services should only commence after the construction of phase 2a, from Lichfield to Crewe. It is hoped that this link will be constructed by 2027, which would still mean that HS2 services will benefit towns and cities north of Birmingham before the completion of the full network to Manchester and Leeds, with connections further north to the WCML north of Warrington and ECML north of Leeds.

The Invitation to Tender (ITT) that was issued for the first tranche of units stipulates within the rolling stock procurement guidelines, that so-called “conventional-compatibles" shall be able to travel at 360kh/h whilst on the HS2 network, but crucially, must also be able to travel on existing railway lines and therefore be able to fit within existing infrastructure and stations.

Although the "conventional-compatibles" will be limited to a maximum speed of 200km/h (125mph) on existing rails, the fact that they will be able to travel at a maximum speed of up to 360km/h between London Euston and Crewe means that significant journey time savings will be achieved between the North and London as soon as HS2 phase 2a opens. More importantly, in addition to journey time savings, HS2 phase 1 and 2a will release vital capacity from the WCML, which means existing WCML services which currently stop at very few stations south of the West Midlands, will be able to stop at busy commuter towns along the WCML such Nuneaton, Rugby and Milton Keynes.


HS2 Ltd's map clearly shows dedicated HS2 services and "classic compatible" services which will use HS2 and existing lines.

HS2 will release capacity on the WCML and eventually the ECML (when phase 2b is complete), by providing express intercity services between places such as Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Preston and Glasgow to London when phase 2a opens. However, these services will not completely replace current WCML services, therefore passengers will benefit from extra capacity and more choice. With the completion of phase 2a existing WCML services will be able to call at more stations, providing improved regional links for towns and cities served by the WCML. With HS2 services providing fast express services from as far north as Scotland and towns and cities in between to London.

One of the main reasons that ticket prices are so expensive for peak time travel is because there is insufficient capacity on the WCML, especially on the section between the West Midlands and London Euston. This issue cannot be resolved easily or cheaply given that the WCML is one of the busiest mixed-traffic railways in Europe. Any further upgrades akin to WCML modernisation programme which took place between 1998 and 2008 would be immensely disruptive and incredibly costly.

The final estimated total for the modernisation programme currently stands at around £10bn. Yet despite further upgrades, renewals and even lengthening of trains since 2008 the WCML is now heavily congested. Passenger numbers on Virgin West Coast services alone more than doubled between 1997 and 2019, from 15m to 38m [1], between the period 2017/18, putting additional strain on a congested network which wasn't designed to cope with the volume of traffic that is using the line today, this includes express passenger services, local and regional passenger services and freight.