Speculation and uncertainty had been growing for some time about the fate of various proposed rail projects in the north of England and we finally got some clarity from ministers when they published the Integrated Rail Plan (IRP).
Of course, headlines were made by the curtailing of High Speed 2’s (HS2) Eastern Leg, which will now only go as far as East Midlands Parkway rather than continuing to Leeds as initially planned.
There was, however, also confirmation that the western leg of the rapid rail mega-scheme would go ahead, linking London all the way to Manchester on a dedicated new high-speed line.
Ministers also promised another high-speed line between Warrington in Lancashire and Marsden in Yorkshire, via Manchester. This 64km stretch will form part of the Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) project linking Liverpool and York, with the rest of the scheme made up of upgraded and electrified sections of existing line.
There will also be electrification of the Midland Main Line from London to Nottingham, Derby and Sheffield while £200 million has been set aside to kickstart construction of a mass transit system for West Yorkshire.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps described the overall package of projects as “ambitious, deliverable and backed by the largest single government investment ever made in our rail network”. However, at £96 billion, that investment is a huge reduction from the £185 billion the government says the full HS2 and NPR schemes would have cost.
So, unpicking all this, what does the IRP mean for different parts of the industry?
The obvious impact on contractors is that there is a smaller overall investment under the latest plans than there could have been if all northern rail projects had been funded – but there was an inevitability about this; costs had spiralled and budgets were tightened in the wake of Covid-19. Something had to give and now at least construction companies know what that is: largely the chunk of HS2 phase 2b that would have linked the East Midlands and Leeds. Start on site was some way off for this work so its cancellation doesn’t hit any contractor directly although a few long-term strategies may be rewritten.
It would appear a good time to forge connections in the North-West and bolster your capabilities on mass transit systems if you operate in Yorkshire. Meanwhile the IRP’s wholehearted, if pragmatic, backing of rail electrification after years of dithering could pave the way for a raft of such projects in coming years.
With its spending power dimmed by the largesse of the pandemic response, the government has had to cut back its infrastructure ambitions – but it remains desperate to deliver as much in the regions as it can to boost its much-heralded Levelling Up agenda. Management consultancies who can offer smarter ways of working – essentially advising on processes that will allow more to be done with less – will surely get a good audience in Whitehall. Similarly engineering consultancies capable of smoothing projects through tricky design iterations, managing stakeholder communication and overcoming planning hurdles could find themselves in high demand. Again it has to be noted that there is less overall spending than once imagined but advisory fees that can make their own business case should not be in danger.
After all the uncertainty of recent years, the IRP appears, on face value at least, to finally give the supply chain a clear plan to work to. Indeed the plan itself boasts of offering an investment “commitment” to 2050 that should “give confidence for the UK supply chain to invest in skills and capability”. It is in part designed to smooth out the workflow peaks and troughs that infrastructure companies have for so long been urging an end to. Clearly the IRP makes a good case for prioritising presence in the North-West over new contacts East of the pennines, and electrification skills over new-build capabilities, when making business decisions over the next few years.