|Manchester Metrolink's expansion shows that high-quality rail infrastructure in northern England can be funded and delivered successfully.|
The irony of the Green Party traipsing to Oldham’s shiny new light rail alignment was seemingly lost on its pamphlet writers, since the £1.7bn expansion of Greater Manchester’s Metrolink light rail network is a tangible embodiment of the HS2 philosophy – a strong reliance on new-build infrastructure and rolling stock, a mix of new and reopened route alignments, and operating principles borrowed heavily from international best practice. Essentially, the objective is ‘do what works’.
Depressingly, some of the most high-profile calls for HS2 funding to be diverted towards ‘the north’ have come from London. This, of course, has much more to do with ridding affluent quarters of north London and the Home Counties of the spectre of construction work than with an altruistic desire to help passengers in Scarborough or Southport. But, as this blog has noted before, it is local services (those with the lowest yield and greatest reliance on peak-hour patronage, when more passengers are paying full fares) which suffer most when rail capacity becomes scarce.
Hence why – as Shadow Rail Minister Lillian Greenwood pointed out in a House of Commons debate on HS2 earlier this month – the ill-fated £9bn West Coast Route Modernisation programme led to the closure of a score of local stations in rural Staffordshire, and why precious slots on the Stockport – Manchester corridor were taken from Mid-Cheshire Line trains and handed to Virgin expresses.
For those of us who advocate the development of regional railways across northern England and beyond, the notion that axing HS2 would improve the outlook for local rail spending needs to be debunked. Indeed, if northern rail travellers really want better access between a rural and post-industrial hinterland and a clutch of thriving cities, they should be egging on HS2. Why? Because HS2 brings more local rail capacity ‘bundled in’ with it.
Fortunately, policymakers across northern England have worked together over several years to campaign and finally secure a package of investment in rail infrastructure around Manchester (the Northern Hub) and gain a slice of the belated national programme of electrification. This is to be fervently welcomed, and it belies the claim (again, heard most vocally in London and the Chilterns) that HS2 is an ‘all or nothing’ scheme. In any case, a glance at the committed spending for the 2014-19 Control Period immediately confirms what a daft assertion this is.
But equally, Northern Hub is a relatively modest programme involving precious little actual construction of new or expanded railway assets. With a plan to reopen the Standedge tunnel apparently obviated by plans for electrification, the majority of the building work is now concentrated on Salford and Manchester, with the Ordsall Chord and two new platforms on the far western side of Piccadilly station. As Warrington Borough Council made clear in 2012, numerous questions remain about how and where the resulting capacity gains might be used, and just how bountiful they are going to be.
Electrification, meanwhile, is a long overdue intervention that will, over a multi-year timeframe, reduce the cost of operating any half-busy railway. That’s why both the Northwest Triangle and trans-Pennine schemes have been approved, and a taskforce is examining the potential for more routes to follow. But electrification alone has only a very marginal benefit in terms of rail capacity.
In practice, it seems inevitable that most of the benefits of the Northern Hub investment will be felt on the higher-volume Liverpool – Manchester – Leeds corridor, where notable speed and frequency enhancements are already in view. Some intermediate markets stand to benefit too – notably Huddersfield, whose MP, Barry Sheerman, is a noted HS2-sceptic. As an aside, it is strange that Sheerman has not yet voiced his fears over the Northern Hub ‘sucking business activity’ from his constituency to Leeds or Manchester, since its rationale of wider economic benefits is essentially the same as that for HS2.
Less clear are the tangible benefits for local trains on the same routes, already characterised by erratic stopping patters and elderly rolling stock. There is a risk that Flixton and Mossley passengers could face the same scrabble for access rights into Manchester and Leeds as their counterparts in mid-Cheshire already have. Why? Because any serious infrastructure spending dedicated to them has to overcome the hurdle that, typically, regional trains in northern England cover less than 40% of their fixed costs, compared to around 80% for commuter routes in the southeast. This isn’t a surprise: rail does not have as central a role in peak time travel outside London (more than two-thirds of all rail journeys are to or from the capital), and the local economy tends to preclude pricing that would alleviate this investment challenge.
Cancelling HS2 would not alter this paradigm, and it is naïve of the Green Party to suggest that it would. Leaving aside the inevitable reality that the £28bn target cost of HS2 would barely cover further WCRM-style upgrading of the three main lines to/from London, burdening our most cost-sensitive rail services with their own infrastructure overheads would only serve to render their economics more fragile, and risk alienating their ridership as well. Is that what the Green Party and others are really suggesting?
Capacity released by HS2 to enhance as broad a palette of regional services as possible is essential to enhance rail’s share of journeys to and from smaller towns across northern England. A more attractive frequency, timetable and journey time to hubs like Manchester and Leeds, plus interchanges with more reliable HS2-compatible inter-city services at places like York and Crewe, should put local rail on a more cost-effective footing. This hypothesis is not fantasy, either: local authorities in North and West Yorkshire have developed a business case for electrifying the Harrogate Loop line in which connections to HS2 at both Leeds and York feature prominently.
Unlike local rail services, Manchester Metrolink receives no operating subsidy, and as a result it has found it easier to secure funding, from local and national sources, for its capital programme. The Green Party is right to welcome Metrolink to Oldham, yet it appears not to understand how it got there.