Grant Shapps has committed a further £589m to kick start work on the Transpennine Upgrade and flagged a significant enhancement to the previously proposed scheme.
Estimated to cost £2.9bn, this would have provided only partial electrification and made no provision for freight. Unsurprisingly, this was considered by many to offer poor value for money, leaving the key central section over the Pennines between Stalybridge and Huddersfield – and Leeds to York - unwired.
Whilst the DfT press release was not categorical about what the new proposal involved, it gave a strong impression that full electrification of the core route was now favoured, allowing all-electric trains to run from Liverpool to Newcastle.
Similarly, provision for freight was also to be considered, ‘replacing thousands of diesel lorry journeys with electric freight trains’ – possibly the first public acknowledgement of the decarbonisation benefits of modal switch to electrified rail. For this to occur, freight needs capacity, electrification and gauge enhancement to permit large containers to be carried efficiently across the Pennines.
Notwithstanding the lack of firm commitment to these key elements, the announcement is to be welcomed and it received general approval from Transport for the North, Northern authorities and businesses. This was boosted by the announcement of a new Northern Transport Acceleration Council, giving northern leaders direct access to Ministers.
An Integrated Rail Plan is promised in December, at which point it will presumably become clear what precisely the Transpennine Upgrade will deliver. Having raised the prospect of full electrification and proper provision for freight, it will be very hard for DfT to drop such elements from the scheme, particularly given the Prime Minister’s promise to rebalance the economy and to build our way out of a post-Covid recession. Furthermore, it is hard to see how the legal obligation to achieve Net Zero by 2050 and objectives to decongest the M62/M60 by modal shift to rail can be achieved without such investment.
It is understood that considerable work is now under way within DfT and Network Rail to develop the proposals and encouraging signals are emerging that an enhanced specification is firmly on the agenda. However, until a clear, unequivocal commitment is given by Ministers, doubts will remain. For sure, the outcry if the hopes raised by Grant Shapps’ announcement are dashed will be enormous: let us hope that does not occur.
Chair, Rail Freight Forum, CILT.