IRP, Rail Revolution or Rail Betrayal? Northern Powerhouse Rail

On the 18th of November 2021 the Government published its long-awaited Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) that sets out how the Government will attempt to improve rail links across the North and Midlands. In this blog I hope to set out the main points from and unpick some of the claims made within the report.

This part, in a two part blog looks into the detail of the Northern Powerhouse Rail proposal. Part one looks at the HS2 East announcement and the possible implications of cancelling the eastern leg of HS2

Northern Powerhouse Rail (HS3)

Northern Powerhouse Rail is where things start to get a little more complicated, as far as I can tell the Government has rejected all 3 proposals put forward by Transport for the North, which were:

"Option 1 was a mixture of new-build high-speed line, covering roughly half the route from Liverpool to Leeds, and upgrades to the existing lines into Leeds (via Huddersfield) and Liverpool (via Warrington Bank Quay) for the rest of the route.

Option 2 was for an entirely new-build high-speed line between Leeds and Manchester, including a new station on the outskirts of Bradford; a new line from Warrington to Liverpool (with a parkway station at Warrington); and an underground Piccadilly station with a connection allowing it to be used for Sheffield services. •

Option 3 was the same as Option 2, but with a new central station underground at Warrington (still offering less convenient interchange to Bank Quay); and an underground station in the vicinity of the existing Bradford Interchange station.

Instead, the Government suggests a patchwork of upgrades, electrification and new sections of track from Liverpool to York.


Starting in Liverpool, it is suggested that there will be further works carried out to enhance Liverpool Lime Street station, presumably on top of the £500m that was spent in 2018 to improve the station's platform layout. However, it is difficult to see what the enhancement will achieve. Even after the £500m re-build the station will have no room for additional services beyond 2035.

HS2 phase 2a will introduce 2 additional trains per hour to London and Transport for Wales intend to introduce a new hourly service between Liverpool and Llandudno and an hourly service to Shrewsbury from Liverpool (with a service every 2 hours extended to Cardiff), that's on top of the hourly Chester to Liverpool via Runcorn service that was introduced in 2019. Beyond that, there is no scope to get any more trains into Liverpool Lime Street owing to the restrictions imposed by the 4 track approach into the station. Anyone who has taken the train to Liverpool Lime St will be aware of the deep cutting that the approach sits in, there is nothing in the IRP that suggests the Government will invest in new tracks into the station, which would be incredibly costly.

Liverpool to Manchester

Travelling out from Liverpool Lime St, HS2/NPR trains will use existing lines to Warrington Bank Quay, where new platforms would be constructed. The only way this could be achieved would be by using the Skelton Junction to Ditton Junction line which is currently used for freight. The line was primarily used by freight trains bringing coal to Fiddler's Ferry power station, but those flows ceased in 2020 when the power station closed. This line would have to be electrified and new low-level platforms constructed below the existing Warrington Bank Quay station. 

As you can see from the approximate map below, the line is curvaceous to say the least, meaning the approach into Warrington Bank Qual LL will be slow. The existing track alignment under Bank Quay is also curvaceous and would have to be re-aligned to allow for platforms to be built. 

Approximate possible route through Warrington using an existing line

Using this approach would mean that HS2 services bound for London that would otherwise have connected to HS2 at Crewe via Runcorn, would be diverted away from and therefore no longer serve from Runcorn. 

From Warrington Bank Quay there would be a new section of track connecting to HS2 phase 2b into Manchester. It had already been proposed that passive provision for new NPR/HS2 junctions be added to the bill for HS2 phase 2b. The junctions would be located West of Manchester Airport and would allow HS2 trains from Liverpool to head south to Crewe and then on to London, and NPR trains to head to Manchester using the tunnel that will be constructed as part of HS2 from Manchester Aiport to a new station to be constructed adjacent to Manchester Piccadilly. As The new HS2 station at Piccadilly will be a terminus this will mean NPR trains from Liverpool that would be travelling east would have to reverse, which is far from idea, as this will impact overall capacity and has the potential to impact service reliabilty.

Manchester to Leeds 

Heading east from Manchester the Government has suggested building a section of new railway from Piccadilly/HS2 to just east of Standedge tunnel, located approximately 10 miles from Huddersfield. From there NRP trains would continue over the existing line to Huddersfield and then on to Leeds. The Government suggests building 40 miles of new railway in total, from Warrington to Standedge tunnel, which would include the section of HS2 from just west of Manchester Airport to Manchester Piccadilly.

Northern Powerhouse Rail as set out in the IRP

Instead of building a new dedicated line that would have served a new through station at Bradford, the Government's watered-down plan is to invest in "significant improvements to the previous Transpennine Route Upgrade (TRU) plans", parts of which are already either underway or in the planning phase. Network Rail has already submitted plans to double the number of tracks and electrify the line from Huddersfield to Dewsbury.

The Government says it now plans to electrify the whole route, instal digital signalling throughout, provide significantly longer sections of three and four-tracking, and gauge upgrades to allow intermodal container freight services. 

Full electrification of the Transpennine route from Manchester to Leeds via Huddersfield was another promise the Government made in 2012 and was another promise the Government broke when it "paused" plans for electrification. The "pause" turned into cancellation of full electrification, with the Government instead instructing Network Rail to draw up plans for discontinuous electrification with scaled back upgrades of the Pennine route. 

The Government also says it will also electrify the route from Leeds to York with some new sections of four-tracking and it will upgrade and electrify the Leeds to Bradford section of the Calder Valley Line.

The IRP briefly mentions Hull, but any proposals fall under the banner of "Future possibilities". The IRP states "The Government has identified a core pipeline of schemes and any further schemes (such as Hull upgrades) will be subject to affordability, delivering commitments on time and to budget, and complementary investments being made. Given the scale of the IRP core portfolio, the Government considers that this – alongside the development work at Leeds and on the Midlands Rail Hub – needs to be the immediate focus for the supply chain and delivery bodies.". 

The IRP is littered with and phrases such as "core pipeline", "subject to affordability", "focussing on delivering", "undertake a study" and "optimal solution" which make it sound like the Government is doing something, whilst in reality it commits the Government to nothing. There's nothing in the IRP to suggest that it forms the basis of a single unified plan which will be looked at as a whole, it's more like an ad-hoc wish list of projects the Government would like to possibly see complete. An ad-hoc approach risks abstraction, whereby the business case for the whole cannot be considered, instead, each proposal must be judged by its own merits, which risks deliverability.  

Put simply the Government has worded the IRP in such a way that it doesn't have to commit to anything and certainly doesn't make any promises which can be broken later.

As far as "Northern Powerhouse Rail" goes, that's it, 40 miles of new track (including HS2 into Manchester) and a patchwork of upgrades which may or may not go ahead, subject to there being a positive business case.

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