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UK railway industry faces significant implications for rail and infrastructure

Article posted: 07/12/2023
UK railway industry faces significant implications for rail and infrastructure

"As Chair of BITA Rail, I feel compelled to provide further analysis of the government’s recent £36 billion “Network North” transport plan given the significant implications for rail and infrastructure.

While initially billed as a better use of funds than the cancelled HS2 Birmingham-Manchester extension, experts highlighted in the Financial Times raise serious questions about the details. The National Infrastructure Commission chair Sir John Armitt stated the costs seem “plucked out of the air” and if the government is “serious” about cutting HS2 northern links, it needs a serious replacement plan.

The Rail Industry Association analysis found only £11.65 billion reallocated from HS2 cancellation actually targets rail investments in Network North. The bulk focuses on roads, with rail enhancements like Northern Powerhouse Rail and Chester station upgrades lacking confirmed funding. Major delivery bodies like Network Rail were not consulted ahead of the announcement.

The frustration for the rail industry is that Network North likely represents an inflation-adjusted reduction in rail spending versus HS2 plans. Yet inadequate Victorian-era infrastructure is a key barrier to growing economic links across northern regions. The cancellation has consequences too for domains like station design – the premise of Northern Powerhouse Rail relied on HS2 tunnels enabling central Manchester connectivity.

While increased budgets for Mayoral Combined Authorities bring opportunities for light rail and trams, transport expert Mark Barry notes even basic upgrades between Chester and North Wales lack a post-2015 business case and would cost over £1 billion. The priority for railway leaders in North Wales is increasing capacity and line speeds before electrification dreams.

So what should happen to lands acquired for the cancelled HS2 leg? Rather than leave blighted areas, I believe there is scope for wildlife corridors, forest recreation spaces for communities, and sustainable cycle infrastructure.

The UK railway industry now faces the challenge of working creatively with government to progress long-term plans that unlock growth, connectivity and climate-friendly travel options across regions. Although Network North brings uncertainty, our sector must continue enabling reliable, efficient and sustainable journeys that support levelling up.

I welcome perspectives from my connections on the analysis and the best path ahead for UK rail. What opportunities or concerns do you see from the new British government’s transport policy"

Robert Cullen

Financial Times Article

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