Let’s hope that the next government breaks with recent tradition. We really don’t want transport investment to be put on hold and under review this summer, only to reappear a couple of years hence to help foster an upswing to match the electoral cycle.

Fortunately, much of transport’s budget-setting has been moved to five-year programmes. Yet clearly transport is vulnerable, with pledges to protect or even increase key spending in areas like health. And there is no bigger transport target than HS2.

It’s not that HS2 has fallen out of favour with the main political parties: each of the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats and the SNP support it. True, from Labour there have been mixed signals on priorities, with Ed Balls wanting to see northern east-west investment prioritised before the second, northern, phase of HS2. But this carries little support from northern Labour city leaders and MPs. The whole idea of last year’s One North proposition was to look at the needs of HS2 and east-west connectivity together to see how to develop the best integrated approaches.

Taking forward that ambition, there are two fundamental problems to overcome. First is the absence of an accountable budget holder for the north of England. In its absence, each city and sub-region will argue for its own area’s ambitions to be met. DfT is the de facto budget holder, and will have this summer’s spending review firmly in its sights.

Memorandums of understanding and lots of partnership are what’s planned. But this does not provide the governance Transport for the North needs, any more than it would suit TfL. Rather than get bogged down in ill-defined partnerships, TfN needs to assume the role of a strong client body, sure of the outputs it is seeking. Network Rail, HS2 Ltd and Highways England are the delivery vehicles for its ambition. DfT should step aside and leave the northern cities and regions to come together and do their best. The evidence from One North (and before it, the Northern Way) is that sensible choices emerge once individual city/regional perspectives are led towards a focus on pan-northern issues.

The second problem is that the investment choices for the north of England’s rail network entail comparing new-build with upgrading existing lines. HS2 Ltd does new build, and has no locus for improving someone else’s railway. Network Rail has every incentive to improve today’s estate, and little experience of new build. This requires someone to exercise the judgement of Solomon – whose baby should it be?

Resolution of this question requires that the key national agencies (Highways England, HS2 Ltd, Network Rail) are asked to respond to a genuinely northern- led, accountable, Transport for the North with alternatives considered carefully against explicit objectives. DfT’s job lies in examining the investment cases put in front of it, rather than in co-authoring a Northern plan.

It could be said that this gets ahead of reality on northern devolution, and that would be true. But how else is the Higgins/ O’Neill-inspired agenda of 2014 that led to the northern powerhouse concept to be progressed? Creating a viable Transport for the North should be a priority for an incoming government, because otherwise it risks having nothing northern to show for itself in five years’ time.

So what of the Ed Balls’s question about prioritising ‘HS3’ ahead of the second phase of HS2? Nobody has the evidence to make a like-for-like comparison. The key is surely to start thinking in terms of a northern programme rather than free-standing projects.

Some will be concerned about affecting the basis of the phase one parliamentary bill, now in its committee stage. What committee members will want to know is that there is a plan to get full value out of phase one; they may well be reassured by a decision to accelerate northern benefits by the early construction of the route between Lichfield and Crewe. And they may wish to learn more about how Network Rail is planning to upgrade its lines to handle additional demand north of Crewe once HS2 arrives. But growth in freight and intercity passenger travel is a problem that needs to be addressed in any event. And it takes us back to the need to look at new build versus upgrade options.

The rail infrastructure needs of a growing north should be looked at in the round, in particular in each of the large cities. What exists today is not going to be able to cope with a doubling of commuter demand in the next 25 years, as well as accommodating HS2 and HS3. City centre stations need expansion.

Here is a hugely exciting challenge. How it is addressed will shape our major cities in the same way as did the first railway age. It calls for strong leadership to address the place-shaping needed in modern world cities. And it calls for fresh thinking on railway engineering and rail operations too.

Reference: Transport Times, May 2015 Issue

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