The NIC report on “Rail needs assessment for the Midlands and the North” – common sense or betrayal?


The National Infrastructure Commission report of December 2020 “Rail needs assessment for the Midlands and the North” has caused something of a stir in the rail industry. The NIC was tasked to look at how the proposals for HS2 and the Northern Powerhouse Rail could best be integrated. It considered two ranges of options  – one that prioritised regional links in the North and Midlands, and one that prioritised long distance links. All options integrated phase 1 and phase 2a of HS2 from London to Birmingham and Manchester, but only the long-distance option included the eastern arm of the original Y shaped network to the East Midlands and Leeds. On the basis of a wide range of indicators, including cost and deliverability, the report concluded that the prioritisation of regional links was to be preferred – cue loud denunciations, accusation of scrapping HS2 abandoning the Midlands and North and so on.   

My first reaction was astonishment that the proposals should have come as a surprise to rail industry commentators – it has been evident to me at least for a few months that some post Covid financial realism was necessary to rein in all the potential major railway projects on the table. Also the eminently sensible and rational Greengauge 21 has recently made very similar proposals, urging that the eastern arm of HS2 be built in a number of phases and repurposed to provide links between regional centres. However, my initial reaction was to share the view of those in the industry, that the conclusions were to be regretted, although perhaps with a greater sense of fatalism than most that this was going to happen anyway.

But then I read the report. I found it to be well laid out, with a convincing set of underlying assumptions and methodology. I have to say I have a great deal of sympathy with its conclusions, which should lose me a few followers on Twitter if nothing else. The basic points that came across to me were that the construction of all the rail schemes currently under discussion is unaffordable, and that the number of passengers travelling between regional centres is significantly greater than those travelling between these centres and London . Post-covid this discrepancy is likely to grow. In this brief post, I want to set out what I see as the benefits of the prioritisation of regional links over long-distance links.

The proposals

The proposals are summarised in figure 1 below from the NIC report. The report firstly sets out a baseline set of improvements that are already underway or committed to – the western leg of HS2, main line speed upgrades (ECML, MML, Manchester-Sheffield); Transpennine upgrade and Midlands Railhub upgrades. Two sets of proposals are provided for each prioritisation – one at the baseline cost plus 25% and one at the baseline cost + 50%. In the main I will consider the baseline + 50% options. The long-distance prioritisation is based on the Y shaped HS2 network, together with a partly new line between Leeds and Manchester, with upgrades to the ECML to serve the north east and Scotland and further upgrades of track in the Midlands and Lancashire. The regional prioritisation assume the western leg of HS2 to Birmingham and Manchester will be completed, but with the eastern leg replaced by high-speed lines from Birmingham to the East Midlands and from Leeds to Liverpool, with major upgrades to the lines from the new East Midlands line to Nottingham, Derby, Sheffield and Leeds; from Sheffield to Manchester; and from Leeds to the North East. Oddly for the regional prioritisation, the baseline + 25% case also sees a major ECML upgrade from Leeds to London, whereas this does not figure in the baseline + 50% option.

Figure 1

The overall benefits from the proposals are set out in table 1 below for the +50% options – taken directly from the NIC report. It can be seen that prioritising regional links delivers the greatest benefit. Journey time and service level details are given in table 2.

Table 1 – Analysis of baseline +50% scenarios
Table 2 – Journey times for baseline + 50% scenarios

The benefits of regional prioritisation

I will admit that my reasons for liking the regional proposals are very parochial and reflect the fact that I live in the Midlands between Birmingham, Derby and Nottingham. I suspect my views might be different should I live in Leeds. That being said, the major benefits from my perspective are as follows.

  • Links between Birmingham and the East Midlands (and Nottingham in particular) are much better than those offered by the current HS2 proposals, which would need to be routed through the proposed East Midlands Hub at Toton (27 minutes as opposed to 53 minutes).
  • Nottingham gains a direct link to the high-speed line facilitating faster overall journey times to London. (58 as opposed to 89 minutes).
  • The need for the East Midlands Hub at Toton is removed. The proposal for a hub there has always been in my view a mistake of potential historical significance. Such a station would suck the life out of the centres of Nottingham and Derby into a new urban centre at Toton which, because of its proximity to the M1 and A52, would also very likely be a major generator of road traffic in the area.
  • Services within and across the East Midlands, Yorkshire and Lancashire would be greatly enhanced – see table 2.

In addition, a link from the line from Derby to Birmingham to HS2 at Tamworth, would allow high-speed running most of the way from London to Derby. It is also of interest to note that the route of the proposed high-speed line to Nottingham appears to be further south than the current HS2 proposal and would allow a new station to be built close to East Midlands Airport. This would thus allow for a high-speed connection with Birmingham Airport, which would allow greater operational flexibility. for both airports.

The drawbacks of regional prioritisation

The main selling points of the current HS2 scheme are decreased journey times and the release of capacity on the classic network for other services, both passenger and freight. With regard to the former, table 2 shows that for the regional-links option journey times are mostly decreased from the long-distance links option between centres other than London. London to Sheffield, Leeds and Newcastle take 6. 12 and 37 minutes longer for the former than for the latter. The first two I would suggest are hardly significant. If the ECML upgrade is included in the regional-links option, the Newcastle / London time takes just 3 minutes longer than the long-distance option – as noted above this was, oddly, included in the +25% regional links option but not the +50% option.

The issue of capacity has also been addressed by the report. Whilst there can be seen to be significant benefits to the number of inter-regional services that it is possible to schedule, the report admits that the regional-links approach does little to release freight paths on the ECML and in the North and Midlands. This will not please the rail freight sector of course and must be seen as a weakness of the regional-links proposal.

One other point. The report only briefly mentions Scottish links. Those that are proposed in the HS2 plans for the WCML and the western arm of HS2 will not of course be affected. Those that are proposed for the eastern arm and the ECML will be affected to the same level as the Newcastle services – and the effects can be minimised by an ECML upgrade. This being said, I strongly suspect by the time these upgrades are delivered, we will have an independent Scotland and a united Ireland, with a transport focus on an east west corridor with high speed ferries from the continent to Edinburgh connecting with cross Scotland lines to high speed ferries to Ireland. Links to London and England in general will be of less concern, and may well involve customs and passport checks.

Final thoughts

As noted above, I find the report and its conclusions plausible and convincing. It is not ideal of course, particularly with regard to freight capacity, but it does seem to me to be realistic, and at least from my Midlands perspective, offers significant benefits. I strongly suspect however that that won’t be everyone’s view.

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