A plan derailed: the future of the Integrated Rail Plan

27th January 2022

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Huw Morris

Billed as a once-in-a-generation chance to transform railways, the Integrated Rail Plan has prompted outrage. Huw Morris reports

It started as speculation, then turned into rumours. The press briefings steadily followed, and when the blow finally fell it was worse than expected. Now there is anger – and a sense of betrayal.

The eventual unveiling of the government’s Integrated Rail Plan (IRP), more than a year behind schedule, outraged transport, business and political leaders across the north of England. The axing of most of the eastern leg of HS2, which will stop at East Midlands Parkway instead of Leeds, was a huge – if anticipated – reversal, given those press briefings. Leaders were not expecting the government’s demotion of Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR).

Prime minister Boris Johnson had repeatedly promised HS2 would extend to Leeds as part of his ‘levelling up’ agenda. Huge swathes of transport, business and regeneration planning during the past decade depended on it. While the IRP amounts to a £96bn investment – trumpeted by ministers as the ‘biggest ever’ – only £40bn is debatably new money, with the rest having already been allocated to HS2.

Sugaring the pill, the government promised electrification across the main lines and £200m to ‘start work’ on a mass transit system for Leeds, and suggested potential future upgrades to support ‘left behind’ cities.

“Properly delivered, the IRP had the potential to be as transformative as Stephenson’s Rocket”

Liverpool City Region mayor Steve Rotheram was unimpressed. “The IRP was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to revolutionise our country’s rail network,” he said. “Properly delivered, it had the potential to be as transformative for rail travel as Stephenson’s Rocket. Instead, they have proposed a service that could have been promoted by Gladstone in the Victorian era.

“It won’t deliver the £16bn of economic benefit we were promised; it won’t free up freight capacity or take heavily-polluting HGVs off the road, and it won’t help connect our region with opportunities across the country.”

In a final and less publicised twist of the knife, the Department for Transport also stripped the sub-regional agency Transport for the North (TfN) of power by assuming ‘immediate and full responsibility’ for the NPR. TfN will be demoted from ‘co-client’ to a ‘co-sponsor’, and will sit on a new joint board made up of government and TfN officials.

Local reaction

“Our statutory advice asked for a £40bn network, but the government has decided to provide even less than half of that,” says TfN interim chair Louise Gittins. “The leaders of the north, jointly with government, have worked hard to come up with an evidence-led plan to help reverse the chasm of under-investment over the last four decades to give passengers in the north a railway network fit for today and for generations to come. That doesn’t mean a bit here and a bit there, or minor upgrades to the existing network.”

HS2 and NPR aimed to increase rail network capacity to accommodate more passengers and shift freight from road to rail; TfN argued this was crucial if the UK was to reduce carbon emissions.

According to Tom Arnold, a research associate at Liverpool University’s Heseltine Institute for Public Policy, Practice and Place, the IRP focuses on ‘quick wins’ through electrification and upgrades. “The plans do little to significantly increase capacity, meaning freight and local services will continue to use the same lines as inter-city services, with speeds restricted. Some of the most undersold benefits of HS2 lie in its ability to release capacity on other lines.

“Upgrades to the network will be hugely disruptive for passengers, leading some commuters to switch to driving – perhaps permanently. The plan does not address congestion in and around Manchester, which slows down services travelling through the city, with IRP proposals continuing to rely on an already over-burdened Piccadilly station.

“A key aim of high-speed rail is to reduce domestic air travel, an objective that is barely mentioned in the IRP and will not be achieved with piecemeal improvements. Finally, electrifying rail lines should be considered a basic upgrade to ancient infrastructure, not a fundamental part of an ambitious transport plan.”

The Integrated Rail Plan – at a glance

  • An additional £625m to progress the Transpennine Route Upgrade
  • Full electrification and upgrade of the Transpennine Main Line between Manchester, Leeds and York as the first phase of a reduced NPR
  • Electrification of Leeds–York line Leeds–Bradford section of the Calder Valley Line to be upgraded and electrified
  • Warrington Bank Quay low-level station reinstated, with lines between Warrington and Liverpool upgraded and electrified, and Liverpool Lime Street station enhanced
  • A £360m fund for contactless ticketing to focus on the north.


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