When Secretary of State Chris Grayling spoke in Manchester on September 22nd of the need to consider Digital Railway technologies in the north as well as the south of the country, few would disagree. And he was right to point out that since 2010 there has been an uptick in investment in the North's railways, including in electrification. But rather than the North working with the centre to shape its future, here was the DfT re-asserting its hegemony of ideas. Devolutionists around the country should take note.
When Grayling was asked about sub-national transport bodies at Transport Times' rail conference on September 13th, he answered in terms of the positive 'partnership' that existed with Rail North. Few in the audience would have realised that Rail North's role has been cut back – according to the minutes of a West Yorkshire Combined Authority meeting on 8th September – from partner to 'stakeholder'.
The North needs to be worried on two accounts: its ability to shape rail investment is seemingly in decline; and infrastructure investments that have been progressing through planning and design development for the past three years are at risk of being held up while studies of Digital Railway schemes take place. Perhaps more worryingly, the change of policy has not been tested or, it would seem, thought through.
Take the parallel made with Thameslink when the Transport Secretary was discussing the critical cross-Manchester rail link (the Castlefield corridor). His point was that with Digital Rail train control systems, Thameslink will be handling a much higher train throughput (24 rather than 15 trains/hour) on an equivalent 2-track railway. True enough, but he was probably attracted to the £300m bill for this advanced train control technology rather than the £5bn+ that has been spent on improving junctions and stations as part of the Thameslink project over the last ten years – expenditure just as necessary to be able to operate a high service frequency across Manchester as across London. Just as with Thameslink, the rail network around Manchester needs upgrading if more trains are to run though Castlefield. And unlike Thameslink, there will not be a uniform (electrified) train fleet (Class 700 in the case of Thameslink), but a rich variety of train types operating in the Castlefield corridor, some new, some old – indeed some analogue-equipped Class 319 trains retired from Thameslink.
Digital train control technology exposes the simple reality that railways are a system, and its moving parts need to be contemplated together. (A similar realisation will dawn one day for Connected Autonomous Vehicles and the highway network.) Junctions, stations and train fleet will all need investment beyond (and different from) that provided for in the recently-let Northern and Trans Pennine Express franchises if Thameslink-style benefits are to be had in the North.
Or take the Transport Secretary's suggestion that – just like with the Midland Main Line – it might be just as acceptable, with dual power (electric and diesel) trains now on order, to save the hassle and expense of electrification and instead have the Leeds-Manchester trans-Pennine railway become the nation's first 'intercity' Digital Railway. This might appeal to those who believe that building the Northern Powerhouse requires a new east-west railway from Liverpool to Hull (so best to leave the existing route unimproved). And if the objective is solely a better Leeds-Manchester journey time, the Transport Secretary, chastened with the failures of the GW electrification programme, can be forgiven for thinking there must be better way forward, so why not give the digital approach a chance.
To which there are four objections. First, no work has been done on Digital Railway on the TransPennine route, so there is bound to be a delay in realisation of benefits – and it is not possible to escape disruption during implementation of digital train control either. Leeds-Manchester is inescapably the place to start improving northern connectivity.
Second, unlike the Midland Main Line case, York-Leeds-Manchester is an efficient 'infill' electrification project connecting two fully electrified parts of the network. The major expense of electrification at the major stations in Manchester and Leeds has already been incurred.
Third, trans-Pennine electrification and upgrade is not just about intercity journey times, but also about creating much more efficient and effective networks of cross-city rail services for the Manchester and Leeds city regions too – and providing capacity for freight.
Fourth, the systems point: there will be significant costs to be incurred with fleet and infrastructure as well as on digital train control, so the business case may not turn out to be better than electrification, if it is seen as an either/or.
Chris Grayling's announcement looks decisive, but there are risks in changing course when none of the development and appraisal work has been carried out. Infill electrification has wider benefits than have been considered to date. Transport for the North needs to respond with a much clearer joined-up plan – embracing digital technology certainly – but also freeing itself from the arbitrary constraints of a fixed 'train service specification' that ignores city region services, if it is to save the day.