Delays to rail-electrification leave the UK economy is fundamentally unbalanced. David Cameron admitted back in 2010 that for too long had the lion’s share of growth and investment been focussed on a few regions in the south. In a more recent report from 2013 in the Journal of Economic Geography, authors from the University of Cambridge and the University of Southhampton argued that in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, a spatially-unbalanced economy between north and south has continued to develop. In response to this situation the government has proposed a couple of solutions; the first being the controversial HS2 train service and the second being a set of long term proposals set out in a 2014 report entitled, “The Northern Powerhouse: One Agenda, One Economy, One North”.
Wherever you stand on the political spectrum, it is clear that we need investment in infrastructure. Over the last few decades there has been a less than ideal amount of growth in infrastructure and investment, which is exacerbated by an ever-growing population. One could well argue that this state of affairs is partly the fallout of having privatised various parts of our infrastructure system, although to be fair it is also easy for governments to overlook the importance of well-funded rail networks. It is easy to wince at the cost; £15 billion is an awful lot of money, even if it is being spent over 15 years. However having a poorly-maintained network is very costly too, making for even more work for Network Rail and others who maintain the many miles of tracks and stations. Having to invest in infrastructure is kind of like having to invest in education: it is a rightly expensive process that benefits everyone in the long term. Unfortunately the way governments turn over every five years is not particularly conducive to this kind of long-term planning; nobody wants to have to tell constituents and voters that a big portion of money is being spent on something they might not tangibly benefit from. So I do agree in principle with a plan to seriously invest in infrastructure in the north. The problem is that the execution of these ideas is looking particularly shaky.
Network Rail, the company that is meant to be carrying out these plans, is in rather dire straits at the moment. Sir Peter Hendy, the former boss of Transport for London, has been hired as a new chair. The government has appointed a new special advisor to oversee operations at at the company: former Eurostar chairman and current deputy chairman of HS2 Ltd Richard Brown. It is doubtful that the company’s five-year plan of £38.5 billion upgrades will be able to be carried out in full. As a result electrification of the TransPennine route between Manchester and York has been delayed indefinitely, and it clear that other proposals will have to be shelved. Network Rail has said that the planned electrification of various lines has turned out to be a more complicated and expensive endeavour than originally planned. So while the One North report believes the decrease in journey times will provide a significant boost the regional economy — to the tune of several billion pounds — realising this ambition is quite tricky.
Ultimately this kind of work has to be done at some point and the longer we leave it, the more expensive and damaging the state of affairs will be for the north. However we need to ensure that whatever is planned is executed in a competent manner by Network Rail and others: to budget and to time. Furthermore, just to preempt the government as it tries to lay all the blame squarely with the rail authorities, people who make these plans and announce them to voters before an election should make such plans with full knowledge of the capabilities of bodies you are tasking to carry out the proposals. We need improvement in infrastructure now more than ever, making sure that we meet demand as well and making sure that we fulfil our environmental obligations. These recent events are not that encouraging.
When not in Cambridge I live in Macclesfield, East Cheshire, where I have lived for the past ten years or so.