To help England’s north, link it up – The Economist

To help England’s north, link it up” was published in The Economist’s Leaders section in the Dec 18th 2019 Edition. Focusing on Boris Johnson’s northern strategy, with a sub-headline “Public spending on transport in the north is barely half what it is in the south-east. That must change.”

The article begins by stating that Boris Johnson “relies on the north like no recent Tory leader” (The Economist, 2019). In relation to the recent Conservative victory at the December 2019 General Election, that saw the party take seats in the North that had been held by the Labour party for decades.

“Although it is closer to Manchester than Brighton is to London, the trains take 20 minutes longer and are a quarter as frequent. Inter-city connections in the north are a mess. By train, it is quicker to travel 250 miles (400km) to Newcastle from London than it is to get to Newcastle from Liverpool, just 120 miles away” (The Economist, 2019). This highlights the glaring inequality the North faces in comparison to the South. What this suggests is that along with HS2 investment in other parts of the rail infrastructure is needed.

With the exception of reopening of lines closed by the Beeching cuts of the 1960’s, electrification is one solution as diesel trains are heavier and involve more moving parts then electric trains thus they are more unreliable. However, another speedy decision as recommended by the economist does not involve rail at all. To please new conservative voters the Johnson government can focus on improving country bus services.

As the predicted costs of HS2 surpass £100 billion it is important that policymakers see the broader picture. The West Coast Mainline (WCML) is currently operating over capacity. Years of lack of investment and neglect in British rail infrastructure has created this problem. Building a high speed rail link may have been cheaper in years gone by under a nationalised rail system, however, that was the past.

Arguments regarding the capacity of the WCML have centred on whether a capacity issue exists. However, as the Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IMECHE) states “Over the past 20 years rail passenger traffic has doubled, and it seems certain to further increase.”(IMECHE, 2019). Later going on to further state that “the alternative of increasing capacity by giving existing lines additional tracks would be hugely disruptive and probably cost about the same” (IMECHE, 2019).

The important thing the IMECHE article notes is that HS2 phase one is not just about a link from London to Birmingham, which the media and commentators often focus on. It is an integrated line in itself. HS2 will run on the existing railway and on HS2 phase one, the high-speed line from London Euston which will join the West Coast Main Line (WCML) near Lichfield with a spur to Birmingham (IMECHE, 2019). Once completed, only three of its 10 trains per hour from London will go to Birmingham (IMECHE, 2019). This will allow for more capacity out of London Euston.

The IMECHE then argues that the extra capacity released will provide Euston with 11,300 peak-hour commuter seats compared with the present 6,400 seats and that it will also provide more freight train paths (IMECH, 2019). Thus, the citymetric claim that there is not integration with the rest of the network, does not hold true.

In Conclusion

Linking the North up requires an improvement of bus and rail services, along with HS2. Increased platform lengths, new rolling stock, better disability provision, electrification and more integration with local bus services so the plusbus scheme can really come into its own in the North. These joined up efforts will aid everyone in the North and may even get some to ditch their cars.

Most of this will be expensive but for too long investment in public transport in the UK has been neglected (not just rail) meaning high costs come at once and will be higher then any incremental investment would have been over a period of time.

However, Policymakers should not shy away from this and should take this bold step to transform not just rail, but public transport services in across the country.

Be sure to check back in on the rail infrastructure and inequality section of my blog.