Ministers appear to be backing away from the idea of electrifying the whole Transpennine rail route, relying instead on bi-mode trains that run on diesel when electric power is not available.
The Department for Transport (DfT) has announced capital spending of £317m into the ‘set-piece’ upgrade as part of a package of enhancements across England worth £401m.
The funding programme also includes £69m ‘to increase freight capacity between the Port of Southampton and the Midlands’ and £15m for new stations.
The DfT said the bulk of the new funding into the Transpennine upgrade will be used to improve connectivity between Leeds, Manchester and York, and deliver electrification and upgrades between York and Church Fenton.
It said this electrification work would ‘enable new and upgraded hybrid trains to run under electric power’, adding that ‘proposals for even more extensive electrification on the route are currently being considered’.
This statement is markedly vaguer than one made last year when ministers announced £589m to ‘kickstart’ work on the line. At that time, the DfT said that ‘full electrification, digital signalling, more multi-tracking and improved freight capacity are now under consideration as part of an Integrated Rail Plan due to report in December’.
It said: ‘These improvements will allow all-electric services between Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, York and Newcastle.’
Transport Network reported in February that Network Rail had conceded that electrification works on two stretches of the line were not funded, despite the DfT previously asserting they were both confirmed and funded from the £589m.
This week, Network Rail has declined to clarify whether those works - from Huddersfield to Westtown near Dewsbury and Manchester to Stalybridge – are now funded.
Although the DfT told Transport Network that the money for the route was additional to the £589m and that the earlier money was still available to Network Rail, the infrastructure operator also declined to confirm this.
Rail industry expert Christian Wolmar said the announcement ‘begs more questions than it answers’.
He told Transport Network: ‘It is very hard to discern precisely what is now included in this project and what has been omitted.
‘Electrification should be a clear across-the-board strategy to ensure that both main lines and important connections and branches are put under the wires, but this seems a very muddled and incoherent project, which the DfT is unable to set out clearly.’
The DfT said on Wednesday that ‘£69 million of improvements to increase freight capacity between the Port of Southampton and the Midlands will boost economic growth’. However, according to an announcement from Network Rail, the cash will mainly pay for significant works to Oxford Station, while ‘also’ generating an increase in capacity.
The emphasis on the freight aspect could be a faint nod to the levelling up agenda, giving ministers the chance to claim that passengers and freight operators ‘across the north and Midlands’ would see benefits from the £401m package.
The DfT said £15m will build new stations at Marsh Barton in Exeter, and White Rose and Thorpe Park in Leeds. This is effectively a re-announcement as the cash comes from the third round of the existing New stations fund, which was increased to £32m in last November’s National Infrastructure Strategy.
The Integrated Rail Plan, which would combine aspects of HS2's connections, remains unpublished.
Transport minister Andrew Stephenson said: ‘Additional investment into the Transpennine Route Upgrade will cut delays and create a more punctual network, with electrification helping deliver greener journeys on this key route.
‘Only by investing in, modernising and expanding our railways can we provide passengers with the reliable and resilient services they expect, and create a transport network that is fit for the future.’
Labour shadow rail minister Tan Dhesi said: 'Yet another rail infrastructure announcement with no timescales attached. Communities want action, not just warm words and more promises from a party that regularly dithers and delays.
'This announcement is no substitute for the long awaited and postponed integrated rail plan which must be published now and must involve a rolling programme of electrification, not delivering in dribs and drabs, which ends up costing the British taxpayer more.'