Integrated Rail Plan: £96bn rail extension and electrification scheme draws lukewarm reaction from UK’s green economy

Image: HS2

The Plan was published by the Department for Transport (DfT) this afternoon (18 November) and is the first comprehensive update of this scale to Government’s rail approach in more than a decade.

Without a change in approach, the DfT has admitted, it would have taken until the 2040s and up to £185bn to deliver promised improvements to high-speed tail. The Plan had originally been promised around 12 months ago.

Outlined today are plans for three new high-speed lines across and between the North of England and the Midlands, as well as a string of electrification projects which – once completed – will mean that 75% of England’s main lines will be electric.

On high-speed rail, the Plan scraps proposals to extend HS2’s eastern leg to Leeds, prioritising investment in the eastern leg between Birmingham and Sheffield and in the western leg between Birmingham and Manchester. Understandably, many in Leeds have voiced disappointment at this decision.

The Plan also provides an update on the Northern Powerhouse Rail project, claiming its approach will cut journey times between Leeds and Manchester from 55 minutes to 33. However, some have pointed out that the detailed upgrades to the existing TransPennine line were already promised under previous Transport Secretary Chris Grayling.

The DfT has its this approach will result in quicker journey times for many and that it will enable a doubling or trebling of journey capacity on key routes.

It has also stated that “under earlier plans, smaller towns on existing main lines such as Doncaster, Grantham, Huddersfield, Wakefield, and Leicester would have seen little improvement, and in some cases, even their services cut back”. The Plans are slated as an improvement in this respect.

There are, additionally, plans to integrate the new high-speed rail projects with existing transport systems in the towns and cities served and to improve intra-city transport for these locations.

The West Yorkshire Combined Authority will receive £200m to begin the delivery of a new urban transit system. The DfT has stated that it is “righting the wrong that Leeds is the largest city in Western Europe without one”.  Options have also been proposed for completing the Midlands Rail Hub, which will increase local rail services across the region.

It’s electrifying

On electrification, the Plan outlines a commitment to electrify more than 180 miles of route, including the TransPennine Main Line between Manchester, Leeds and York, and the Midland Main Line from London to Nottingham, Derby and Sheffield.

These steps build on a commitment to remove all diesel-only trains from the English rail network by 2040, as outlined in the Transport Decarbonisation Plan. Transport is notably the UK’s most-emitting sector, so needs to be a key focus area in the transition to net-zero by 2050.

The DfT has stated that all projects detailed under the Plan will meet the Government’s existing requirements for calculating and reducing emissions. They will also need to meet a requirement for all major public infrastructure projects to have a net-positive nature update. Papers on that requirement specifically mention HS2. Going beyond an existing commitment to no net loss in biodiversity on HS2 – a commitment many green groups believe the developers are set to break – there will be a requirement for the project to deliver a net gain. But, recognising that ancient woodland cannot be replaced, the Government has chosen to exclude it from calculations on no net loss and on net gain. 

Green economy reaction

As well as decarbonising rail lines, it is clear that the UK will need to increase public transport uptake and improve the efficiency and accessibility of systems to meet its net-zero target.

But the Plan has been widely criticised, by those campaigning for levelling up and those working on the net-zero transition alike.

Sky is reporting that communities and universities across the North East and Midlands, as well as MPs representing local regions, feel “misled”, as today’s plan does not deliver all that has been promised for years.

The director-general of train operator trade body Rail Delivery Group Andy Bagnall said that  “leaving out key pieces of the jigsaw will inevitably hold back the ability for the railways to power the levelling up agenda and the drive to net-zero” in a “fair, clean recovery” from Covid-19.

Green Party MP for Brighton Pavillion Caroline Lucas argued that the Government is not taking a joined-up approach to decarbonising transport. She Tweeted: “We need a decarbonised, affordable and fully integrated transport network across the whole country.

“Pledges on rail are broken while the Government makes domestic flights cheaper and plans a £27bn spend on roads.

E3G’s researcher for place-based transitions Colm Britchfield Tweeted: “Scrapping half of HS2 and cutting TfL to the bone (get ready for reduced tube/bus, no new cycle infrastructure and no new air pollution measures) is utterly negligent from HM Treasury. If you aren’t serious about public transport then you aren’t serious about net-zero, simple as that.” 

Green Alliance’s executive director Shaun Spiers Tweeted: “I got a lot of flak when I was at CPRE for supporting high-speed rail. For me, it was always about increasing capacity, ‘redrawing the economic geography of the country’ and [a case of] sustainable rail versus polluting roads and aviation. 

“But what we have now looks like the worst of all worlds: a truncated HS2, significantly reducing its benefits; a £27bn roads programme; and a Government keen to boost domestic flights and airport expansion. This makes no sense economically or socially, let alone for the environment.”

Sarah George

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie