Manchester to Leeds train journey times to be cut - but row persists over new Piccadilly station plans
Greater Manchester leaders are however still calling for more railway investment in the North of England, including an underground high-speed rail train station at Piccadilly.
A long-awaited upgrade for trains between Manchester and York via Leeds and Huddersfield will have its budget tripled, the government has announced.
The Transpennine Route Upgrade, which will slash journey times and fully electrify lines, will be worth up to £11.5bn when it is done in the next 15 years.
The plans are also set to cut carbon emissions by up to 87,000 tons per year.
It comes after the new Northern Powerhouse Rail route was scaled back last year as the government committed to spending more on existing lines instead.
But local leaders are still calling for more railway investment in the North of England, including an underground high-speed rail train station at Piccadilly.
They claim the current plans for trains to travel on concrete viaducts across East Manchester would rob the region’s economy of £333m a year by 2050.
Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service, transport secretary Grant Shapps conceded the extra cash for the upgrades – at least £6.1bn – could be spent on the underground HS2 station, estimated to cost less.
However, he argued upgrading existing lines would be a better use of money.
He said: “I accept that government means having to make decisions and choose between these things, but the choice was, which improved journey do you not want to have in return, and I didn’t think there was a better option.
“I’d much rather get on with things like speeding up this journey between Manchester, Leeds and York.”
What is the extra cash for?
The budget for the Transpennine Route Upgrade, for which plans were first floated in 2011, will be increased from £2.9bn to between £9bn and £11.5bn.
The extra cash will be spent on digital signalling technology, full electrification of the Manchester to York route, and more tracks, allowing for another two passenger trains every hour and additional hourly slots for freight services.
The first phase of work, set to start next year, will make train journeys from Manchester to Leeds 41 minutes, before eventually being brought down to 33 minutes when work to upgrade the route from Warrington is completed.
Almost £1bn will also be spent on the electrification of the railway between Stalybridge and Manchester, reducing journey times and rail freight flows with electric trains expected to hit the tracks in around the middle of the decade.
The upgrade will also set the foundations for Northern Powerhouse Rail which had promised new lines from Liverpool to Leeds via Bradford, but will now only see new tracks laid down between Manchester and Marsden where the high-speed route will join an upgraded existing line to Leeds via Huddersfield.
Mr Shapps said the upgrades can be delivered 10 to 15 years faster than building a new line and cost up to £11.5bn, as opposed to around £19bn.
He said: “Rather than building a brand new line and trying to blast our way across the Pennines, it would make much more sense to upgrade the line we’ve got which is what this Transpennine route upgrade is all about.”
However, these upgrades are expected to cause disruption to services.
In a bid to minimise this disruption, Mr Shapps said diversionary routes will be in place next May, allowing for trains to avoid lines which are being worked on.
Concerns have been raised about the impact that the high rate of inflation will have on the costings, but Mr Shapps insisted that this has been accounted for.
He said: “This isn’t just a bit of extra funding, it’s tripling or even quadrupling the funding.
“And it’s not because the project’s run over budget or something like that, it’s because the plan is now way more ambitious than the thing that was being talked about in 2011.”
What have local leaders said?
Responding to the announcement, Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham welcomed the news that the railway upgrade budget is set to be increased.
However, he accused the Conservatives of breaking promises, including for a new line to Leeds, and asked why the North is being forced to make choices.
The Labour mayor also argued that the impact of Covid on the country makes it even more important to get rail infrastructure investment in the North right.
He said: “We’re glad to hear that it is receiving extra funding.
“But it was never the case that that alone sorts out the rail problems of the North.
“We were promised a completely new line to Leeds and it’s obviously hugely disappointing that that commitment is not going to be met.
“Doing Piccadilly right has got to be the best way to level up Manchester and the North.
“If you look at what has been spent on stations in London in the last decade, how we can be arguing about a few billion pounds for Piccadilly, I honestly don’t know.”