Northern Powerhouse Rail: what is ‘HS3’ project and is it going ahead after Autumn Statement?

Fears that Integrated Rail Plan comments indicate that major upgrades to east-west rail link could be under threat

The Northern Powerhouse Rail project will go ahead under the latest government spending plans but there is confusion around how much of the original vision will be completed.

There had been concerns that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt would scrap the project as they struggle with a huge hole in the government’s finances. Officials said in early November that the Prime Minister was reviewing all major infrastructure projects, sparking fears that the high-speed rail link would be ditched in favour of a less ambtious programme of line upgrades.

However, in his Autumn Statement the Chancellor said the government was “not cutting a penny” from capital projects and would fund the Northern Powerhouse programme as initially planned. His comments, however, suggested the project would still be scaled back from the original vision.

What is the Northern Powerhouse Rail?

On Transport for the North’s website, the project is described as: “A major strategic rail programme, specifically designed to support the transformation of the North’s economy by providing effective and efficient rail connectivity between the North’s major economic centres, offering a faster and more reliable service across the entire region. Connecting the people, communities and businesses of the North.”

It was first proposed in 2014 and has also been known unofficially as High Speed 3. Its supporters say the project is the biggest infrastructure investment since the Industrial Revolution and will address the poor level of high-speed rail provision on east-to-west routes in the north of England. They say that when complete it will put 3.8 million people within 90 minutes of four major northern cities, creating up to 10,000 more job opportunities in urban areas and adding £3.4 billion to the regional economy by 2040.

Under the proposed 20-year project new lines would be constructed between Manchester and Leeds via central Warrington, and between Liverpool and Manchester via Bradford. In addition lines between Leeds, Newcastle, Hull and Sheffield would be upgraded, using parts of the HS2 network where possible and adding more stops to create easier links for passengers.

The plans for Northern Powerhouse Rail.The plans for Northern Powerhouse Rail.
The plans for Northern Powerhouse Rail.

What does the Autumn Statement mean for Northern Powerhouse Rail?

In early November, Downing Street said that the government remained committed to the Integrated Rail Plan (IRP), which contains a less extensive vision for NPR. Ministers claimed that much of the ambition of the project could be attained by upgrading existing lines and services but supporters of NPR said the IRP sold northen cities short.

Under that plan the proposed new lines from Manchester to Leeds and the later extension from Liverpool to Hull would be abandoned in favour of upgrading the existing track. Plans for a new station for Bradford on the Liverpool to Hull stretch will also be scrapped. However, one new 40-mile line between Warrington and Marsden would be constructed.

In the Autumn Statement the Chancellor said the government would honour commitments to HS2 and the “core” NPR route but did not clarify what that entailed. He said: “When looking for cuts, capital is sometimes seen as an easy option. But doing so limits not our budget but our future. So today I can announce that I am not cutting a penny from our capital budgets in the next two years and maintaining them at that level in cash terms for the next three years.

“Smart countries build on their long-term commitments, not discard then. Because of this decision… we will deliver the core Northern Powerhouse rail, HS2 to Manchester and east-west rail. All these and more will be funded as promised.”

The statement and accompanying documents do not explain what the “core” NPR work includes but it is believed to refer to the IRP plans rather than the more extensive plans proposed by the NPR group. This means a new high speed line will be constructed between Warrington, Manchester and Marsden but the new-build line from Liverpool to Leeds via Manchester and Bradford will not go ahead, nor will a new station in Bradford.

The announcement was met with dismay from backers of the project. Henri Murison, chief executive of The Northern Powerhouse Partnership, said: “The government is selling the North short by not committing to Northern Powerhouse Rail all the way across the Pennines through Bradford, as well as on to Hull by an electrified line.”

West Yorkshire mayor Tracy Brabin added: “Jeremy Hunt has taken aim at levelling up with his U-turn on Northern Powerhouse Rail in full.”