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Connecting Cites | Northern Powerhouse

Manchester victoria 1

Better connected northern cities lie at the heart of plans to turn the dream of a Northern Powerhouse into a reality.

Transport for the North’s (TfN’s)new chief executive Barry White tells New Civil Engineer this month that its £70bn plan to improve road, rail and other public transport connections across the north will lead to a stronger regional economy, benefiting the whole of the UK.

The ICE, for one, is fully on board. Its recent policy report Delivering a Northern Infrastructure Strategy sets out a programme for infrastructure delivery in the North and explains how that will support delivery of the Northern Powerhouse vision.

The report’s lead author, KPMG global head of infrastructure Richard Threlfall, says that if the region’s economic potential is realised, it could, in effect, become the seventh biggest city in the world, by population and by economic output.

Vibrant diverse economy

“The North is a huge, vibrant and diverse economy, but its fragmentation undermines its impact, both in its contribution to the strength of the UK and its ability to be a power in the world,” he tells New Civil Engineer. Making the case for improving transport infrastructure, he says: “If we link the Northern cities together, with 21st century transport and digital connectivity, the whole of the North could operate as one economy.”

The ICE report has made several recommendations to drive the Northern Powerhouse forward. These include the creation of a Council of the North with representation from local political leaders and public sector bodies. It also calls for the development of a specific infrastructure strategy for the North and a spatial plan for the region. But there is broad agreement that improving transport links is essential.

Arup city leader Dave Newton says connecting cities in the North will not just help the region, it will rebalance the UK economy. He is also a board member of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, a body of public and private sector leaders, chaired by former chancellor George Osborne.

Urban economic power

“If the North thrives, the UK thrives” says Newton. “Large urban areas are increasingly wielding the economic and political power, with London as the dominant force.

“However, if cities of the North come together as a whole, we will be able to rebalance the UK economy, attract global interest and provide a complement to London.”

Transport connections are currently slow: the average speed of trains travelling from Leeds to Manchester is 78km/h, while those travelling between Hull and Sheffield average 69km/h. The ICE report says this contributes to productivity levels which are 25% lower than the English average.  

The cities of the North have a combined population of around 15M. Newton says the distance between Manchester and Leeds is less than the length of London Underground’s Central Line. But only 10,000 people live within a 60 minute train journey of four or more major northern cities.

Taking one of the key projects, Northern Powerhouse Rail – the plan to directly link the North’s six main cities and Manchester airport by rail, TfN predicts numbers living within an hour’s train connection to a Northern city would rise to 1.3M people, with passengers benefiting from faster journeys, a more frequent service and a more reliable service.


Works at manchester with train

Works at manchester with train

Northern Powerhouse Rail will bring 1.3M people within a one hour train journey of a Northern city

“Transport can limit options for where people work and live – too often you need to move house to move job and this needs to change. We need an ultra-modern network, on road, rail, in the air and at our ports,” says Newton.  

Alongside transport, the ICE’s report covers sectors including housing, energy and skills as well as digital connectivity. It says transport infrastructure is key to the delivery of other objectives such as more housing and retaining skills.

So, with the case for connecting the North’s cities made, what is happening to make this work and are there any blockers?

Ambition challenge

“Our biggest challenge is our own ambition,” says Threlfall. “If we don’t believe the North can be great again, we won’t find the leadership and the determination to make it happen. But if we start from the perspective that we can create ‘One North’, then we will channel our energies into everything that would make that possible, be that ubiquitous super-fast broadband coverage across the region, or a transport strategy which embraces technologies like Hyperloop and autonomous vehicles.”

According to Newton, the car is the most dominant mode for city to city travel and public transport systems must become easier to use and better integrated.

“There has been a historic underinvestment in the infrastructure of the North which has contributed to holding back productivity and also impacted on how much of the North’s talent we have been able to retain,” he says.

And this is where civil engineers come in, with those promoting the Northern Powerhouse saying that they will play a key role in securing funding for improvements.

What could be possible

“We need civil engineers to help civic and business leaders recognise what could be possible, in terms of developing infrastructure that is both cutting edge in its development, and efficient in its whole-life cost,” says Threlfall.

In terms of road transport, the long-running saga of how to get across the Pennines is still being debated. Highways England says it knows there has to be a “substantial improvement” in journey times between Manchester and Sheffield. But TfN’s draft strategic transport plan, published in January, concludes that building another long tunnel under the Pennines will be prohibitively expensive and that it is working with TfN to develop a shorter, deliverable solution.

Plans for the £3bn upgrade of the trans-Pennine rail route are still being discussed between Network Rail, the Department for Transport and local authorities, but work is expected to start next year.

Transport secretary Chris Grayling recently said: “Network Rail has already begun detailed designs, and provided us with options for the Transpennine Route Upgrade to meet the objectives we’ve set out – for journey times, capacity and reliability.”

The problems of connecting the North’s cities are well documented, the solutions are complicated, but engineers are at the heart of solving the problem. 

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