Pauses unpaused

Published Mon, 2015-10-05 11:37

The announcement last week by the Secretary of State for Transport, Patrick McLoughlin, that the previously announced delays to the plans for the electrification of the Midland main line north of Bedford and the TransPennine network is, on the face of it, good news.


The view north through Bedford station in August 2008; this is currently the northern extremity of the electrified Midland main line. If all goes according to plan, the revised schedule sees MML electric services north of here to Kettering and Corby in 20

When the deferment was of both schemes was originally announced in the summer it led, inevitably, to accusations that transport investment in the north of England was yet again being sacrificed. At the time, the decision was seen to fly in the face of the government’s much vaunted policy of seeking to recreate a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ as a means of stimulating economic revival centres on cities like Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds.

One of the factors behind the earlier decision was a contention that Network Rail had proved, and was proving to be, incapable of delivering major projects on time and to budget. At a time when Network Rail’s finances had, once again, been transferred on to government’s book and when the government’s finances were already stretched, these issues were critical.

The announcements of the delays were also made contemporaneously with a restructuring of Network Rail through the parachuting in of Sir Peter Hendy, outgoing commissioner of transport for London, into the Network Rail chairmanship. With Sir Peter now having been in place for just about three months, thing seem to have settled down and it’s back to business as usual but on a slightly longer time frame.

In the Department of Transport statement about the restoration of the two projects, Sir Patrick and Sir Peter both issued quotes. The former said: ‘As a one nation government we are making sure every part of Britain benefits from a growing economy. Connecting up the great cities of the north is at the heart of our plan to build a northern powerhouse. This government will see the job through and build a better, faster and more reliable railway for passengers in the north and midlands.

Sir Peter responded: ‘The temporary pause in the programme has given us the space to develop a better plan for passengers. People can expect more services and faster journeys. We face some difficult challenges, and there is more work still to do, but the Secretary of State’s decision means we can now move forward with our plans to electrify TransPennine and Midland Mainline.’

What is interesting to note is that the Secretary of State makes no reference to any substantial change to the existing plans whilst Sir Peter refers to ‘the space to develop a better plan for passengers’. Given the length of time that it takes to put together these major investment schemes, one wonders quite what the ‘better plan’ may be other than a slight deceleration in the original programme.

Inevitably, the announcement that the work is to proceed has been welcomed by the media in the midlands and north. The cancelled deferment combined with plans for the further devolution of power to an enlarged South Yorkshire authority (which will now include much of north Derbyshire) which was also hinted at last week, suggest that the promises made about the creation of the ‘powerhouse’ are back on track.

The cynic in one might say that little has changed between the end of June and the start of October other than ‘regime change’ at Network Rail and that the whole process was engineered in such a way to facilitate a new chairman and ethos at the top of Network Rail.
As to the actual announcement itself, what are the results of the three-month review of the investment plans. Firstly, the good news is that both the midland main line and the TransPennine routes have now got the green light again.

There was always a slight illogicality in the decision vis-a-vis the TransPennine route, given that work on the electrification of the lines from Wigan and Manchester Victoria  to Liverpool Lime Street was already well advanced and scheduled for completion this year. Unless the route from Guide Bridge to Leeds via Stalybridge and Huddersfield was electrified soon, the western electrification was pretty much a white elephant, which would have made the TransPennine franchise difficult to operate. The lines radiating out from Leeds are already amongst the most congested in the country; it was only the improvements that electrification offered in terms of frequency and journey time that offered a potential solution. 

Now it would appear that the TransPennine scheme will be completed, including the branches to Blackpool North and Windermere and the links from Leeds to Selby and York, by 2022. When completed, it will be possible to travel from Liverpool to Newcastle upon Tyne by EMU throughout. The planned work will also include the upgrading, but not the electrification, of the Leeds to Manchester Victoria service via Bradford Interchange and Halifax.

Turning to the Midland main line, the first phase of the revised scheme will see the 25kV network extended from Bedford to Kettering and Corby by 2019. Between 2019 and 2023, the MML electrification will be extended northwards to Leicester, Nottingham, Derby and Sheffield.

Further to these plans, the government has also announced that the franchises for the North and TransPennine Express networks will be relet in the autumn. 

The go-ahead also gets around another tricky problem for the railway industry: what to do with the stock ordered for use on the electrified TransPennine and MML routes? On the latter, in particular, delay might have meant expensive new stock lying idle in sidings whilst that old warhorse, the High-Speed Train, once again rode to rescue. Even with this announcement, however, it’s likely that the HST will sill be in operation in the early years of the next decade on MML services — almost 50 years after it was first introduced.