Transport: Back to Square One ?

Credit: Flickr \ Ingy The Wingy

Paul Salveson on a way out of rail turmoil and the prospect of an orgy of road building

Since Sunak’s bizarre speech at Tory Party Conference (see Chartist 325), the rail industry has been in turmoil – perhaps even more so than usual. There have been some real successes – notably the ditching of plans to close ticket offices; a great victory for mass campaigning. As I argued in the last issue, the announcement that HS2 was being killed off beyond Birmingham was a mixed blessing, with what is looking increasingly like a renewed orgy of road building. At a recent hearing of the Transport Select Committee, secretary of state Mark Harper said that over a third of the money “saved” by cancelling HS2 will go to road schemes, though it is looking like it will be much more than that. The well-respected RAIL magazine suggests the figure is more like 70%. Watch out for them all being in winnable Tory seats (if there is such a thing anymore).

There is an element of smoke and mirrors in all this, the money as such doesn’t exist – it would be based on borrowing. But anyway, it is clear that the Government wants to make political headway by putting money into their much-loved roads, saying that it is a “saving” from HS2. There are some upsides and there have been promises of “real” money to support local bus services which are desperately needed. However, the “alternative” plans promoted as “Network North” are nothing of the sort, just a rag-bag of local schemes to win a few votes, many not located in “the North” anyway.

The abandonment of “very high-speed rail” does offer opportunities which should be seized. The positive schemes which the Government has promised, including rail re-openings and bus improvements, are welcome. But we need to construct a “Network North” which is truly about creating a sustainable and strategic transport network for the North, and beyond.

That means re-visiting HS2 and seeing what is left that can, and should, be rescued. Simply abandoning the route in a field near Lichfield (Handsacre Junction) adds an extra volume of traffic onto an already congested route. It has to continue to Crewe, avoiding bottlenecks in the Stafford area. Much of the construction work is well underway and it would be folly to abandon it. At the southern end of the route, not going into Euston would be complete madness. Again, a lot of work has already been done.

That said, there’s a need now for a national strategy with high-speed rail integrated into the conventional network. Speeds do not have to be engineered for 400 km/h – 300 km/h is plenty, and much less environmentally damaging (you can avoid sensitive areas but also lower speeds are more fuel efficient).

A national high-speed rail network should connect not only the main cities (London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds) but smaller cities and large towns, which HS2 ignored in a reckless pursuit of very fast end-to-end journey times. Northern Powerhouse Rail, from Liverpool via a new route to Manchester and on to Leeds and the east coast would be an essential part of the network. Most importantly, what happens north of Crewe must be re-assessed. The route is looking very tired, with capacity bottlenecks and frequent infrastructure failures. The entire route from Crewe to central Scotland needs an urgent review with a major upgrade now. This would benefit freight as well as passenger services (as would completing HS2 to Crewe). So too would improving a short stretch of highly congested railway through central Manchester – the Castlefield Corridor.

We are not talking about lots of new railway, but some new infrastructure should be assessed, together with “grade separated” junctions to improve capacity.

Crucially, a strategic rail plan must integrate inter-city with local and regional services, many of which are sorely in need of investment. The Calder Valley route from Manchester and Preston to Bradford and Leeds via Hebden Bridge, needs electrifying and upgrading. Some routes, such as Skipton – Colne, the Woodhead Route from Manchester to Sheffield and York – Beverley, should re-open. And let us not forget how people get to and from the station: buses that actually connect with trains, and safe walking and cycling routes, are a vital part of the mix.

We must not obsess about ownership. Most of the rail industry is now state-owned (infrastructure, and many train operating contracts) or rigidly controlled by the state. I am for trying out some different models of ownership including worker and passenger co-operatives that have a degree of commercial freedom, but recycle profits back into the railway. At the regional level, the mayoral combined authorities, suitably enlarged, could take over and run local rail services, as the highly successful Merseyrail operation, managed by Liverpool City Region, proves. They have even bought their own trains! Andy Burnham is itching to do the same in Greater Manchester.

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