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How Northern Powerhouse Rail will be delivered 'differently'

3121352 pb manchester metrolink (1)

Transport for the North (TfN) is planning to deliver its £35bn Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) scheme “differently”, by involving contractors before the usual early contractor involvement stage, as well as spending more money upfront on ground investigations to design out the risk.

Ahead of the detailed proposal being submitted to government, TfN director of NPR Tim Wood told New Civil Engineer that a large part of the project’s proposal would focus on removing risk at the earliest possible stage. 

Official plans for the rail project, connecting Hull, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle and Sheffield are due to be submitted before the end of the year. The scheme is third on the list of projected infrastructure spends over the next 20 years in the National Infrastructure Commission’s National Infrastructure Assessment.

Wood said when building or upgrading a railway, one of the key ways to mitigate risk and stay within the budget was to understand the ground conditions and geology of the land, and he wants to see more money spent on ground investigations at an earlier stage.

“That’s where we want to spend more money than normal [on ground investigations],” he said. “We really want to give enough information that the contractors are very clear as to what is required to be able to deliver that job.

“We want to take out the risk on the job, so we have a clear programme, a clear work bank and the contractor is able is able to understand that. Their chief executives will come out with me with their boots on, and walk that route with me.”

He also said he wanted to get contractors involved even earlier than normal with contractors on board when looking at land purchases

The series of upgrades and new lines will predominantly give east to west connectivity across the north. New lines are to be built between Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds then major upgrades of up to 75% of the existing lines will take place from Manchester to Sheffield using the Hope Valley Line and on lines up to Hull, Leeds and Newcastle.

Northern powerhouse rail npr map

Northern Powerhouse Rail map

But with six touch points to High Speed 2 (HS2) and a shared section of track, Wood said it would be “catastrophic” if HS2 phase 2 did not go ahead to give the north to south connections.

Fears for the northern section of HS2 were increased last month after transport secretary Chris Grayling said their was still a case to be made, after the hybrid Bill for the phase 2b part of the line was delayed by a year in September to align the two rail projects.

High speed 2 phase 2 map

High speed 2 phase 2 map

Wood said TfN was now acting as a “guiding mind” to oversee the different rail projects and ensure they are integrated together “in the most efficient way possible”.

“We want to get the best for the British tax payer and drive efficiencies,” he said. “If I need to buy TBMs [tunnel boring machines] and when mine or HS2’s are going to finish, how we can integrate the personnel or the machinery. If I’m buying track laying trains, how can we share the cost and work as one.

“It’s about how we can be really fully integrated, it’s about collaboration, transparency and openness. That’s the only way we will be able to deliver a brand new railway in the north.”

Wood described the capacity increase that NPR and HS2 phase 2 would bring as a “rebalancing” of the north, south economy. Today he said, 2M people have access to four of the major city regions within 90 minutes, but after NPR, that will increase to 10M. With the additional connectivity to jobs, the scheme will also increase the gross value added (GVA) in the north from £300bn to £400bn.

It is also about a modal shift in transport, he said, as only 1.1% of people in the north use rail with 85% preferring to use a petrol or diesel-powered vehicle to get around.

“But they’re not going to do that until they know they’re going to have a seat, the trains are going to arrive on time, and they’ve got connectivity to plug devices on the train,” he said.

The scheme will submit its outline strategic business case in December with a single option selection due to be published in 2020. 

The scheme will be built from east to west as much of the construction needed in the east is on Network Rail owned land, making the consent process much smoother Wood said. Construction on the eastern side is due to start in 2024, with work on the Manchester to Liverpool section starting in the late 2020s and Manchester to Leeds in the early 2030s.

In the Autumn Budget, £37M was allocated to NPR to develop the scheme further, this is in addition to £15M which had already been promised.

“We’ve really moved up the political agenda and there’s been extensive funding available,” he says. “What we asked for, we got and I think that’s really important.”

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