In July the new prime minister Boris Johnson spoke in Manchester and made a commitment to Northern Powerhouse Rail. NPR is centred on a proposed high speed line (let’s call it “HS3”) between Leeds and Manchester, much of it in tunnel, and probably serving just one intermediate station in the city of Bradford. The timescale for NPR remains unclear. It is certainly more than a decade away, possible two decades. If and when it is built it is difficult to see how it will benefit communities in the large towns and smaller communities on the Calder Valley Line. People in those communities – present rail passengers, and also others who would use the train if only the service were better – can not wait for a high speed line in 15 or 20 years time that may by-pass them anyway with trains in a tunnel beneath their feet.
In August, the government announced a review of HS2, the high speed line between London, Birmingham an the North. Could HS2 be cancelled (even though work it the first hase has started)? Could the building costs saved be spent instead on bringing forward the benefits of NPR/HS3 and, more important transforming travel for people in those communities between the big cities?
Meanwhile, we have the climate emergency, continuing and worsening unless the world takes concerted action. Transport (among other sectors) has to decarbonise. And that includes rail. As the Charter said when we launched last year, what’s the point of driving your electric car to the station if your train is still a dirty diesel?
For strategic routes including the Calder Valley Line decarbonisation must mean electrification. Battery trains or hydrogen trains might work for branch lines where the trains run relatively infrequently at relatively low speed but routes like ours with lots of stops and targets to cut journey times need proper, full wiring. That’s what the rail industry and engineering bodies have been saying. And that’s what the Electric Railway Charter says in an open letter sent recently to the new Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps. We can not wait for experiments with hydrogen or other ways of supplying traction energy that have self-evident limitations. We want Mr Shapps to get a rolling programme of wiring on track. Here’s the text of our letter:
“Rt Hon Grant Shapps MP, Secretary of State for Transport,
Great Minster House, 33 Horseferry Rd, LONDON, SW1P 4DR
19 August 2019
Dear Secretary of State,
The Electric Railway Charter is a campaign founded last year by four rail user groups on the Calder Valley Line supported by the Yorkshire and North West branches of Railfuture. We seek implementation of the recommendations of the Northern Electrification Task Force (NETF) which reported in March 2015. Our Calder Valley Line was top-ranked scheme in the NETF list of lines required to be electrified.
Our groups strongly welcome the commitments made in the Prime Minister’s speech in Manchester (July) to investment in rail in the North. We welcome the suggestion that there should be a strong local input into decisions and look forward to seeing more detailed proposals in the autumn, but have three concerns:
- Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR), including “HS3”, may be up to two decades in coming to fruition, during which time there will be a continuing urgent need for improvement to existing lines. This must include electrification as the best means of both modernising and decarbonising operation of strategic routes with frequent services.
- Planning and building “HS3” may divert resources from the need to improve existing routes.
- When it is eventually realised, the new line with only one stop (Bradford) between Leeds and Manchester may only indirectly benefit users of local stations, unless it is built with intermediate railway junctions in Bradford allowing through running to existing routes.
In pursuit of that urgent need (a) above, we are writing to ask you: to re-start a rolling programme of railway electrification, including the programme recommended by the Northern Electrification Task Force (NETF) in its “Electric Sparks” report (March 2015). The following points are relevant:
- Rail must play a full role in the commitment to zero-carbon by 2050 with Britain leading the way. Latest climate reports suggest this deadline should if anything be brought forward. We lag on railway electrification with a stop-start approach historically compared with other countries.
- We have surely moved on since decisions two or more years ago to cancel or limit the scope of various wiring schemes. Reports (referenced at end) from inter alia the Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE), the Rail Industry Association and RSSB support the view that a 10-year programme of electrification would give major cost reductions. This would be achieved by maintaining and developing skills, and using innovative, smart engineering approaches.
- Such innovative engineering (for example making it easier to wire under bridges and tunnels) and high-quality project management should also make projects less disruptive.
- Alternative energy pathways including batteries and sustainable hydrogen (manufactured without releasing net CO2 as by-product) may have application on less heavily used and lower speed branch lines. But strategic routes including the Calder Valley, with frequent services, frequent stops and a need to improve journey times, must have full electrification. We believe this is made clear in the recent reports. The IMechE report on The Future for Hydrogen Trains in the UK made three headline recommendations, No. 1 of which was to reverse the cancellation by UK Government of electrification programmes. We surely do not have time to keep proven electrification on hold pending experiments with “alternative fuels” that have self-evident limitations.
- A continuing electrification programme would allow existing, surplus serviceable electric trains “cascaded” by new train operators to be used on newly electrified routes.
On economic, business and environmental criteria, the 2015 NETF “Electric Sparks” report ranked the “full” Calder Valley Line (Leeds to both Manchester and Preston) at the top of a list of 12 schemes recommended for an initial 5-year plan. Lack of progress led us to launch the Electric Railway Charter. We believe:
- Wiring the CVL would logically follow the TransPennine Route Upgrade (TRU) on the Huddersfield line. We await full details of TRU but hope that now-feasible cost savings will allow full rather than gapped electrification resulting in a “green”, energy-efficient, high-performance railway that will cut Leeds-Manchester journey times to 40 minutes long before NPR’s 30-minute promise can possibly materialise.
- Following TRU without pause, Calder Valley electrification (as specified by NETF) would benefit the economies of a large number of major towns and smaller communities along the route through Bradford, Calderdale, Rochdale and East Lancashire.
- Whilst we look forward to any potential benefits of new high-speed routes as part of NPR in the long term, the urgent need is to continue modernisation of our existing routes and deliver the “Northern Sparks” promise to benefit travellers sooner.
Our groups look forward to receiving your comments, and trust the Government will shortly move forward in commitment to railway electrification.
J Stephen Waring, Chair, Halifax & District Rail Action Group; Electric Railway Charter joint coordinator
with Electric Railway Charter partners:
Richard Lysons, Electric Railway Charter joint coordinator (Littleborough)
Richard Greenwood, Chair, STORM (Support the Oldham-Rochdale-Manchester rail line)
Nina Smith, Chair, Upper Calder Valley Renaissance Sustainable Transport Group
(Hebden Bridge and Todmorden)
James Vasey, Chair, Bradford Rail Users Group