Devolution and further investment need to be further explored and embraced if we are to unlock economic potential in the north, according to an industry group.

Martin Tugwell, chief executive of Transport for the North a lobby group representing the northern transport industry from sea, rail, road, and air.

The government needs ‘to do things differently’ when it comes to investment in the north’s connectivity, he said, and as he opened the group’s annual conference in Liverpool earlier this week, his concerns of a ‘one size fits all’ approach to investment appraisal is holding the North back.

Their blueprint for dong this sets out routes to better connectivity that they said would realise levelling up, reduce social exclusion related to transport, and create more choices in our public transport system.

It sets out how the people living and working in the North are best placed to set out the connectivity outcomes needed to transform the region, not as individuals, but as ‘one voice’ via businesses and politicos that make Transport for the North’s board.

“There is a prize to transform the North up for grabs, but it requires investment to create transformational change, and the devolution of powers to those closest to the people and places that will benefit to use them,” Mr Tugwell said.

News and Star: Martin TugwellMartin Tugwell (Image: TfN)

He added that change is needed in how the nation plans for, develops, invests, and delivers on transport infrastructure, namely accelerating devolution which could ‘remove inertia’, and see investment benefits realised sooner.

Such motions would also see challenges overcome, people and businesses empowered, climate change tackled, economic growth supported, accessibility enhanced, and societal disadvantages addressed, according to Mr Tugwell.

It comes hot off a week of blows for rail in the media, in the midst of heavy strike action that have become a new norm, and earlier this week HS2 was branded ‘very poor value for money’ by MPs.

The government’s assessment that it was better to complete phase one of the project – London to Birmingham – was better than scrapping the project entirely, brought with it ‘many uncertainties’ and as it stands, HS2 is ‘very poor value for money’ if it’s not extended to Manchester’.

This is according to the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee (PAC), that added it is ‘highly sceptical’ that the Department for Transport (DfT) will be able to attract the private investment needed for the planned London terminus at Euston.

The estimated cost of completing the part of the line to Birmingham from West London is £59billion in 2019 prices, or £67billion if adjusted for inflation.

The price of the entire line, which would terminate at Manchester, was put at £32.7billion when it was approved in 2012.

The MPs on the committee added that the project had been unable to constrain costs in its main civil engineering contracts despite said MPs calling for this to be addressed four years ago

HS2 trains were set to call at Oxenholme, Penrith and Carlisle stations which were to become ‘integrated high-speed stations’ where passengers could catch HS2 trains and access the high-speed network to the south.

The MPs added that the poor cost management indicates a ‘failure of governance and oversight’ at both HS2 Ltd, the company that oversees it at arms length, and the DfT, after years of warnings.

Dame Meg Hillier, the committee’s chair, said: “Here we are after over a decade of our warnings on HS2’s management and spiralling costs – locked into the costly completion of a curtailed rump of a project and many unanswered questions and risks still attached to delivery of even this curtailed project.”

News and Star: Dame Meg HillierDame Meg Hillier (Image: Parliament)

How then, can not only the project itself be worth the cost to the taxpayer, but how can investment into northern transport, into rail and other modes, become worthy of the strain services have put on our pockets with rising ticket costs, isolation of key economic areas in Cumbria and the Northeast, and allow us to perform on a level playing field with industrial giant areas like the Southeast?

John Stevenson, Carlisle MP, has been vocal on the issue well before and since the northern leg was scrapped, and is a proponent of further devolution.

A key drive of the northern economy is infrastructure, he said, as well as digital industries, and substantial investment going ‘over and above’ what is there is necessary for the region.

The government seemed prepped for rebuttals after what was seen majorly as a failure in government ambition when the line was curtailed, as talks on making more useful and logical links between areas emerged.

“I think the government has gone some way to achieve what we’re seeing as an east-west connection between Liverpool and Hull, in the same way the Elizabeth Line joins London,” he said.

News and Star: John StevensonJohn Stevenson (Image: Archive)

“Looking more locally, you’re seeing that investment in things like the ring road that makes connectivity better around Carlisle, investment in the railway station, the Borderlands Growth deal fr a feasibility study of a borderlands railway line, and following the demise of HS2, we’re looking at developments on the Cumbrian line.”

Brian Wernham, the Lib Dem parliamentary hopeful for Carlisle, said: “We need more focus on east-west rail travel in Cumberland.

“The rail line to Newcastle still runs no faster than when it opened in the reign of Queen Victoria in 1838. 

“Some of the signalling has been modernised, but not all of it.

News and Star: Brian WernhamBrian Wernham (Image: Supplied)

“The rails have already been upgraded to continuous welded tracks, but the rolling stock does not have capacity and the end-to-end journey time is woeful.”

He said a signalling upgrade could be covered by £90million of investment, and also see passing loops for express trains added at key points, and see battery-run trains introduced which are more sustainable/

“My vision is a Carlisle to Newcastle service in 45 minutes, and a similar improvement to Workington and Whitehaven to get the Sellafield traffic off our roads and safe and comfortable commuting and leisure journeys from east to west,” he concluded.

Focus on HS2 itself undermines the rest of the north, which doesn’t stop at Manchester,  Julie Minns, the Labour candidate for Carlisle, said.

“Three things are required for this to happen.

“More frequent and affordable local buses so that people can actually get to our city centre, towns and villages, and businesses can get the staff they so desperately need.

“Better east-west rail links, connecting West Cumbria to Carlisle and onwards to the Northeast.

“Too many businesses tell me that they're not able to capitalise on potential opportunities in the Northeast because of inadequate rail infrastructure.

News and Star: Julie MinnsJulie Minns (Image: Supplied)

“And finally after a decade of stand-off between the Conservative government in Westminster and SNP government in Holyrood, we have to get the Borders Railway connection to Carlisle back on track,” Ms Minns concluded.

For Mr Stevenson, numerous smaller projects could be done on a regional basis, or even more locally.

Ultimately, though, we’ve missed out by not embracing elected mayors to realise this, he concluded.

Going back to the conference from February 5, Lord McLoughlin, TfN’s chair, further stoked the fires of investment in northern transport infrastructure and services, saying it’s ‘more important than ever’ if we are to not only realise economic opportunities but enable more sustainable travel choices and reduce social exclusion.

TfN’s strategic transport plan will be handed over to the Secretary of State soon and sets out a broad plan in which how the body aims to be ‘agents of change’ for the region.