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Northern Hub rail special: All points head north

While debate continues over the benefits of connecting major cities via the proposed High Speed 2 link, northern cities are already on their way to seeing a renaissance in railways as the Northern Hub scheme unfurls.

That it is so easy to walk between the neighbourhoods of central Manchester it perhaps comes as a surprise to some that the city has three major railway stations. But not only does it have them, they are now at the heart of a grand plan to open up capacity and electrify major routes in the North.

Together with upgrade work across that part of the network, the ambitious programme of works forms the Northern Hub scheme. And the scheme is beginning to hit milestones at a gathering pace.

The overarching objective is clear – stimulate growth in the North via improved rail connections between cities that otherwise act as bottlenecks, particularly an issue with Manchester. Scheduled to complete in 2019, the £600M scheme will allow up to 700 more trains to run each day and provide space for 44M more passengers a year.

This will be achieved through a combination of large scale electrification, a new section of railway in Manchester city centre, alignment alterations at key stations and station upgrades.

And thanks to a series of sign-offs by chancellor George Osborne, work is well underway. Key announcements came in the March 2011 budget with £85M pledged for the Ordsall Chord, a new vital section of railway in Manchester, followed by the next budget a year later that offered the scheme an additional £130M ahead of the remainder of the funding being formalised in Network Rail’s next spending cycle for the five years from next year.

The Ordsall Chord route

The Ordsall Chord route

The electrification programme gives a sense of the scale of benefits being sought. This accounts for £400M worth of the work and stretches over 58km of track (24.3km of route) in five phases of work (see box). It is part of a 350km track upgrade across the wider northern routes.

The Pennines – a notoriously difficult part of the country to traverse – is one of the highlights of the scheme, according to Network Rail programme sponsor for the scheme Martin Jurkowski. Funding for this was confirmed in the 2011 Autumn Statement.

“The announcement of electrification over the Pennines has become the game changer for the Northern Hub, because it does allow you to use the superior performance electric trains to increase capacity over the hills,” he says.

Phases of electrification

1 Castlefield Junction to Newton Le Willows by December 2013
2a Liverpool to Newton Le Willows
2b Huyton to Wigan
2c Castlefiled Junction to Manchester Victoria (phase 2 complete by December 2014)
3 Preston to Blackpool by May 2016
4 Manchester Victoria to Preston (Euxton Junction) by May 2016
5 Manchester Victoria to Stalybridge, Guide Bridge to Stalybridge by December 2016

Right now Network Rail is in the midst of engaging contractors “very early” via behavioural workshops for the scheme’s £250M civils work. It has prequalified joint ventures of Morgan Sindall/Carillion and Skanska/Bam Nuttall as well as Laing O’Rourke and a decision on the winner was thought to be imminent as NCE went to press.

Manchester will play host to some major project work for the wider scheme. “In some respects Manchester is a bottleneck to the network across the North,” says Jurkowski, an understandable viewpoint as he begins to elaborate on precisely how the intricate layout currently works.

Manchester never had one principal station but historically Piccadilly handled traffic to and from the south side of the city; Victoria handled the north side and the east-west traffic. Piccadilly is the de facto principal station and though the Hub is about fostering economic growth, it’s also about accommodating growth that’s happened already because of the increase in rail usage over the last 10 years, he explains.

The announcement of electrification over the Pennines has become the game changer for the Northern Hub, because it does allow you to use the superior performance electric trains to increase capacity over the hills

Martin Jurkowski, Network Rail

Now services using Manchester Piccadilly are at capacity. “Over the 1970s and 1980s a decision was made to concentrate traffic at Piccadilly, which in that context was the right thing to do,” says Jurkowski.
The east-west trains were diverted to run via Piccadilly, which was a fundamental change, he explains, because Victoria was principally serving the east-west traffic. Now the east-west traffic, instead of heading through the North of the city, converges on the already congested south side of Manchester.

As a consequence, catch a train today from Liverpool to Manchester and then Leeds and it has to cross the whole layout of track coming into Piccadilly from the south, for example.

Currently there are four trains an hour doing this, crossing – and blocking off – London, suburban and freight train paths for three or four minutes a time.

Different solutions were considered over the years, says Jurkowski: “Do we build a flyover here, grade separate, or do we build something called the Ordsall Chord? There’ve been plans or ideas for 20 years.”

He adds that the Pic-Vic rail tunnel and an underground tramway were mooted along with a similar Castlefield curve over.

It is the much discussed Ordsall Chord that has emerged as the answer – an entirely new 500m stretch of track in the west of the city that will link Victoria and Piccadilly for the first time, in addition to opening up capacity to Manchester airport.

For around £85M, the new curved link will pave the way for two new fast trains per hour between Manchester Victoria and Liverpool and between Leeds and Manchester.

The link plan faced public scrutiny in large part because of its proximity to local residents and the Museum of Science and Industry, which occupies the former Liverpool Road station. But following a public consultation last November, Network Rail has gained the confidence it needs in its proposals for a bowstring arch bridge. Designed by consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff and architects from BDP the efforts put into its architectural appearance aim to mitigate some of the impact on locals.

Currently obscured Stephenson bridge at Ordsall Chord site

Currently obscured Stephenson bridge at Ordsall Chord site

As a carefully considered added bonus, it will also open up sight lines to a George Stephenson Bridge that is otherwise largely obscured from view. Construction is set to start by the end of next year and completion set for the end of 2016.

Meanwhile, to the north, April marked the start of work to transform Victoria station, involving the introduction of what Network Rail believes to be a “spectacular” new roof alongside refurbishing Grade II listed parts of the Victoria Buildings including the war memorial, glass dome, Soldiers Gate and the wall map.

The £44M station project is a precursor to the full Northern Hub plan but effectively sits within the wider scheme.

And last week Network Rail revealed the options to be consulted on to improve the railway around Manchester Piccadilly and Oxford Road stations.

Two new platforms at Piccadilly are being proposed adjacent to the existing platforms 13 and 14 on a new bridge section to allow more trains to run through rather than terminate, while widening the railway at Oxford Road will allow platforms 1 to 4 to be extended to accommodate longer trains.

Once decided upon, work will begin in earnest to begin joining up the dots of station and track upgrades and electrification with the aim of the revamped northern connection being ready by 2019.

Northern Hub timeline

Spring 2010: Network Rail launches Northern Hub report
Summer 2012: Government sets out national rail service requirements for five year period (2014 - 2019) and announced full funding for the Northern Hub project
January 2013: Spring 2010: Network Rail launches Northern Hub report
Summer 2012: Government sets out national rail service requirements for five year period (2014 - 2019) and announced full funding for the Northern Hub project
January 2013: Network Rail publishes Strategic Business Plan 2014-2019
Summer 2013: Work starts (between Huyton and Roby)
Autumn 2013: Office of Rail Regulation decides on funding available to meet Network Rail’s plans, including Northern Hub proposals
December 2013: First TransPennine Express start running new electric trains from Manchester to Airport to Glasgow
Spring 2014: Full electric fleet introduced
Winter 2016: Phase 1 (Ordsall Chord) completes
Winter 2018/early 2019: Phase 2 (remaining schemes) complete Network Rail publishes Strategic Business Plan 2014-2019
Summer 2013: Work starts (between Huyton and Roby)
Autumn 2013: Office of Rail Regulation decides on funding available to meet Network Rail’s plans, including Northern Hub proposals
December 2013: First TransPennine Express start running new electric trains from Manchester to Airport to Glasgow
Spring 2014: Full electric fleet introduced
Winter 2016: Phase 1 (Ordsall Chord) completes
Winter 2018/early 2019: Phase 2 (remaining schemes) complete

 

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