It’s about time we had a proper transport infrastructure strategy

Special projects editor

The new Northern Powerhouse transport strategy should be welcomed and scrutinised not just moaned about.

It’s been 100 years since trains were this popular in the UK. Not only are passenger numbers threatening to outstrip their Edwardian peak but we’re also seeing politicians of all colours falling over themselves to produce ideas on how to revamp the railways, using not privatisation but public money.

The latest plan launched today pulls together various ideas from national and local politicians on how to improve transport in the North of England, with George Osborne, Nick Clegg and the Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Sir Richard Leese, all getting in on the action.

There are still no firm proposals or guaranteed funding for any new schemes, but the document – entitled The Northern Powerhouse – sets out a number of goals for how regional rail and road transport, including airport links and freight movement, can be improved through a unified strategy.

Most headline-grabbing among the ideas is the desire to slash rail journey times between the major cities by even more than the current electrification and Northern Hub programmes, with a new “TransNorth” network. Under the plans, train travel from Manchester to Liverpool would take 20 minutes instead of 32 and to Leeds would take 30 minutes instead of 49.

Such long-term strategic thinking as a means of unlocking the potential of the northern English cities is well overdue, and has unsurprisingly been welcomed by the Institution of Civil Engineers and the manufacturers’ organisation EEF. Indeed, the latter wants to see the strategy broadened to cover the whole country with the creation of a UK Infrastructure Authority.

Already, however, there have been grumbles about the cost, that the plans don’t go far enough, or that they’re “pie in the sky”. As with HS2, we should expect questions of “How can we afford a new railway when nurses are being made redundant?” and “Why should we pay billions of pounds to get somewhere 20 minutes faster?”

This kind of thinking will only lead to the North of England continuing to receive far less investment per person than London and the South-East, where further transport improvements such as Crossrail 2 are viewed by many as inevitable progress that will improve business prospects and quality of life.

Some back-of-an-envelope calculations show that while the TransNorth proposals are expensive – a new Manchester-Leeds line could cost around £250m per mile – they remain a third cheaper in per mile costs than current estimates for putting yet another rail tunnel beneath London. And, as with HS2 and Crossrail, the cost will be spread out over decades.

Meanwhile, accusations that the Conservatives are only making the announcement as a cynical ploy to win votes before the election may have some truth (although the Chancellor has been a convert to infrastructure investment and the Northern Powerhouse concept for some time now), but that doesn’t mean the whole thing is a bad idea.

Of course, none of this means we should simply write a blank cheque. It’s right that the government has put forward broad ideas rather than firm, detailed plans, so that there is time for scrutiny and consultation on whether this is the best way to improve transport in the region.

But we should welcome the fact there appears to be a new political consensus that government does have a role in planning and funding new infrastructure to underpin and encourage economic growth.