Yorkshire dales trees and fields. And some brown sheep.

Commit to Northern rail upgrade ahead of massive yacht, peers argue

Image credit: Illiya Vjestica | Unsplash

The government has been called on to commit to building high-speed infrasatructure in the North of England amid concerns that the scheme may be shelved or scrapped, and funds redirected towards other projects.

The Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) scheme – sometimes loosely described as HS3 – aims to connect Northern cities via a high-speed east-west route. The proposed rail infrastructure would link Manchester to Leeds via Bradford, and eventually extend to Newcastle and Hull.

NPR is a key part of the government’s promise to unlock the economic potential of regions outside London and the South East (“levelling up”), and would be the biggest transport investment in the region since the Industrial Revolution at an estimated £43bn. The scheme could go some way to rebalancing Britain’s rail infrastructure: the best-served railway routes are north-south and usually radial to London, while east-west lines are often branch lines with reduced capacity and older rolling stock. NPR could put one in four workers in the region within 90 minutes of at least four Northern cities. The scheme has been floated for the best part of a decade.

Recently, reports have suggested that the government could ditch the NPR scheme as funds are redirected to the “bottomless pit of HS2” and other rail upgrades worth around £10bn, including electrification of the Manchester-Leeds transpennine line.

Transport minister Lady Vere refused to commit to this specific infrastructure project while being pressed for a commitment in the House of Lords. She repeated that the government is assessing “all options” amid an integrated rail plan, of which NPR is an important part. Frustrated at lack of concrete detail on the progress of the scheme, Labour’s Lord Rosser said: “Can she at least assure us that work on the construction of [NPR] will take priority over the start of work on the Prime Minister’s latest project: the construction of a new royal yacht?”

Vere responded: “I reiterate that the integrated rail plan must come first. Without it, it is pointless having a plan for [NPR] because, of course, the whole point is that everything has to be integrated.”

The Prime Minister has promised to build a national flagship to succeed the Royal Yacht Britannia, which was in service from 1954 to 1997 and is now stationed as a tourist attraction in Edinburgh’s Port of Leith. The new yacht, which would support diplomatic and economic relations, could cost £200m to build.

The exchange was prompted by the government’s rejection of proposals for an innovative subterranean maglev train network to link Northern cities. The technology, which allows for faster and more energy-efficient transport, is tried-and-tested but has not been deployed in Europe.

Vere said that the government had “thoroughly investigated” the feasibility the proposal but concluded that conventional rail remains the best option, mainly due to the more straightforward integration into the existing network.

Conservative peer Lord Moylan, a former transport adviser to Boris Johnson, said: “Maglev is a great British invention increasingly deployed in Asia for high-speed travel. As our world-beating British tunnelling engineers have shown, constructing railways in-tunnel can be cheaper than constructing them on the surface, provided that it stays in-tunnel. However, it seems that every proposal for maglev that comes from the Department for Transport is rebuffed.”

“Can the minister explain why her department is so wedded to a 200-year-old technology that, when constructed on the surface, can both cost more and be very annoying for local voters?”

Vere responded: “We must look at all technologies and that is precisely what we do. He makes an important point in saying that systems around the world use this, but just one operational high-speed system does so at the moment: the Shanghai City Maglev. There are many others operating at lower speeds, that is, less than 100mph, and obviously there is one in construction in Japan but it is coming up against some cost pressures.”

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