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Flagship Levelling Up Project Won’t Materialise for Decades, Report Warns

Overcrowded, unreliable services look set to plague the north for some time to come, writes David Hencke

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and former Conservative Defence Secretary Michael Portillo. Photo: Simon Dawson / 10 Downing Street

Flagship Levelling Up Project Won’t Materialise for DecadesReport Warns

Overcrowded, unreliable services look set to plague the north for some time to come, writes David Hencke

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The north of England will have to wait nearly 20 years to see the full benefit of one of the Government’s major ‘levelling up’ projects – the TransPennine electrification of rail services from Manchester to York – a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) revealed on Wednesday.

The report says the window for completing the £11.5 billion scheme is between 2036 and 2041 and that is without any further delays to the project. Voters were promised by David Cameron in 2011 that the line would be electrified by 2019 at a cost then of £289 million.

The report says that although the full route has now been planned, there are many unresolved challenges that have still to be sorted, including decisions on ordering rolling stock for the trains, complicated arrangements for construction works including the diversion of services and record inflation in the construction industry.

In the decade prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, passenger journeys provided by the two main train operators on the route increased from 106 million to 137 million, resulting in overcrowding. Work on the programme first started in 2015 but was paused as part of a cuts package by the-then Transport Secretary Chris Grayling.

Since 2017, the Department for Transport (DfT) has repeatedly altered the scope of the programme to meet differing ministerial priorities and budget constraints, the report says.

As a result, £190 million spent on developing programmes, as well as their design and project management, has been wasted.

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“The department has not yet committed to funding the rolling stock needed to achieve the programme’s full benefits,” the report adds. “The upgraded route will require electric trains that are compatible with new digital signalling systems. Until funding is confirmed there is no certainty that rolling stock will be at the required level.”

The report also notes that, “It is not yet clear how the department and Network Rail will manage the cost of inflation. The department and Network Rail have not yet agreed how sharp rises in the cost of energy and materials will be funded. It is also not clear if Network Rail and supply chain contractors will be able to fully address labour shortages, which may also increase costs.”

Furthermore, passengers are not aware that planned upgrades are set to take place. “This creates a risk that passengers will switch to other forms of transport to avoid disruption during upgrade works and will not return in the long-term,” the report says.

The NAO says that Network Rail is developing its communications approach with train operators and plans a large marketing campaign for this autumn. It is also minimising the use of rail replacement bus services throughout the programme due to their unpopularity with passengers.

Ministers are hoping to convince voters of their commitment by completing two small schemes by December 2024 – the last date for the next general election.

This covers building diversionary routes prior to starting construction of the improved line – and the electrification of the line from Manchester Victoria to Stalybridge. Completion of this latter project depends on transferring electric trains from the West Midland Railways to Northern Rail, which has not yet been funded.

“Rail passengers in the north have contended with increasing over-crowding and delays for too long. It is good that plans for the TransPennine Route upgrade are now agreed, but there are still significant risks to the programme’s progress that could cause further disruption,” says Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO.

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