Thursday, 21 March 2019

Rail & the Liverpool City Region - The Track to Growth

This week I was fortunate enough to be invited to an event in Liverpool called “Rail & the Liverpool City Region - The Track to Growth”. The event was an opportunity for city, transport and business leaders to publicly give their full backing to Transport for the North's (TfN) Strategic Transport Plan (STP), and it was also an opportunity to celebrate 5 years since the formation of the Liverpool City Region, and the £340m that has been invested in rail over that period.

As part of the STP, Transport for the North have set out £40bn worth of investment in rail which amongst other things will see Liverpool connected to HS2 and Manchester by a dedicated 2 track high speed line. This is something the city has been demanding since the route of phase 2 between the West Midlands and North West was announced. Whilst business and political leaders have been supportive of HS2, with benefits coming to the region from 2026, they were never fully satisfied with Liverpool's connection to HS2 being as far south as Crewe.

Rather than seeing HS2 connectivity as an insurmountable challenge the LCR and TfN have worked together to see how HS2 could be extended and integrated with a new line which provides Liverpool with direct connectivity to HS2, but also to Northern Power House Rail heading east to Manchester and Leeds.

Also this week a proposal was put forward for a new railway station to be built within Liverpool city centre, which would be connected to NPR. The new station would ideally have platforms 400m in length to take full advantage of the new longer trains that will be used on the HS2 core network. Currently Liverpool Lime St is limited to trains of around 260m in length (the length of an 11 car Pendolino). Lime St is also about to reach the limits of its capacity, this despite the recent the upgrade to the track approaching the station and the construction of a new platform. Very soon new services to Scotland and to Chester via Halton curve will consume the new capacity created. HS2 itself will also introduce 2 new services each hour to Euston from 2026. Therefore city leaders say that it is vital that Liverpool gains a new station and dedicated connection to HS2 and Manchester via NPR.

LCR estimates the HS2 link could provide £15bn worth of economic benefits and attract an additional 3.9m visitors per year to the region. Claire McColgan MBE Director of Culture Liverpool spelled out just how important having good transport links is to the tourism economy in the region, but also how vital tourism and culture are to the region's economy. Ms McColgan made it clear that event organisers want to host events in the LCR “because they know that the city transport sectors work together”. Pointing to success stories such as the Giants Spectacular last year which attracted 1.4m visitors across Liverpool and the Wirral, and the sailing of the 3 Queens along the River Mersey, which saw 1m people line the River on both sides to see the ships sail in.

Liverpool City Region

The event wasn't focused solely on the STP, it was also a good opportunity to celebrate some of the success stories over the past 5 year, since the formation of the LCR. The LCR led by by Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram brings together Liverpool City Region’s six local authorities – Halton, Knowsley, Liverpool, Sefton, St Helens and Wirral working in cooperation to tackle issues that face the region. Not just transport for but housing, skills and Energy. In terms of transport though the LCR was able to bring together local transport plans, Network Rail's RUS and the needs of businesses to identify key infrastructure improvements that were required to help unlock the potential of the region.

The result of the collaborative approach was a £340m package of measures that would improve rail connections across the region and would help to enable new services and improve reliability. The largest of the measures was the work undertaken at Liverpool Lime St, but improvements were not focused solely on the city centre. A long held aspiration to re-instate bi-directional running at Halton Curve linking the North Cheshire railway to the WCML at Runcon has been realised, and a brand new station named Maghull North has been constructed.

Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram

Shortages of rolling stock has meant that services using the now complete Halton Curve have been delayed, but it is hoped that Transport for Wales Rail will begin to operate services between Chester and Liverpool, calling Helsby, Frodsham, Runcorn and Liverpool South Parkway in May this year.


It is clear that Liverpool transport, business and political leaders fully support HS2 and the TfN STP, but a word cropped up again which has the potential to threaten any future investment, that word was skills. Echoing the challenges outlined by the NRIL – Building New Railways report, Northern Powerhouse Rail Director Tim Wood made it clear that "the major risk to the programme is not money, it is skills” (or the lack there of). This is something I have written about for many years, in fact I first wrote about the skills gap back in 2015 when it emerged that GWML electrification was going to be delivered late and over budget, and that electrification of the Transpennine route was to be "paused".

What was true in 2015, unfortunately is still true today, we simple do not have enough skilled engineers in the UK to undertake the work that is necessary to get the North moving. It is frustrating in a number of ways, one because it seems as if people read on a daily basis in the main stream media, that the government should cancel HS2 and invest in the North and how it will solve all of our problems, but it just wont. And it's frustrating because we should be getting on with building infrastructure in the North, but we can't, not yet.

Let me give a example of why cancelling HS2 today would not improve railways tomorrow. In simplified terms HS2 is new railway and as such is moving towards the heavy civil engineering phase in which earth is moved, tunnels are excavated and structures are built. This requires a certain type of engineering skill set, such as earth work contractors and tunnelling experts. If they stopped work today and were moved up north to build something, what would it be? There are no detailed plans for NPR, no shovel ready civil engineering projects for them to begin work on.

What people might be thinking when they say “improvements” are upgrades, which is understandable, but those tunnellers and earth work engineers aren't correctly skilled to then start upgrading the railways. Most of the egineers who are correctly skilled to upgrade our railways are already doing so. Tens of thousands of them working tirelessly usually at night to improve Britian's railways.

Now I know it is probably a bit over simplified, but it does demonstrate that you simple can't down tools on one project and start another, and especially not by just throwing money at it.

The skills gap is going to take years to fill, and while good progress is being made with universities working in cooperation with TfN and NRIL and the formation of National High Speed Rail college, there is still a long way to go. Getting children ready to become the engineers of tomorrow needs to begin in primary and secondary schools.

We cannot allow there to be another lost generation like mine, which was told university is the only avenue available to you if you want any sort of career. I know in my school careers in science, education and IT were promoted, but the idea that you could have a successful career in engineering just never came up.

One last word on HS2, it was clear from yesterday's event that the LCR and TFN who represent 19 local transport authorities from across North thoroughly reject the notion that we should scrap HS2 and invest in the North instead. Tim Wood spelled out the message from TfN again "Let me be clear, we absolutely need HS2". The simple fact is we need both HS2 and NPR.

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