Written evidence submitted by Manchester Airports Group (IRP0089)

Introduction

As the owner of Manchester Airport, East Midlands Airport and London Stansted Airport, MAG (Manchester Airports Group) welcomes this Transport Committee Call for Evidence. Our airports are strategic national infrastructure assets that have the potential to drive economic growth and accelerate a levelling up of the UK economy.

Rail infrastructure is a critical strategic asset for the UK, and both the North and Midlands require significant investment planned in an integrated way, to address the effects of many years of underinvestment. Delivered in the right way, rail investment has the potential to act as powerful enabler of improvements to international connectivity, productivity and wider economic growth.

Manchester Airport is the third largest airport in the UK and the largest airport outside the London system. It is the primary international gateway for the North and Midlands, with over 200 destinations served by over 70 airlines. Manchester Airport has a ground transport interchange, connected to the classic rail network, Metrolink light rail, and bus/coach networks. The airport will also be a major stop on the HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) networks.

East Midlands Airport (EMA) is the UK’s busiest dedicated freight airport, alongside its role as a regional passenger airport. EMA has played a key role during the COVID-19 pandemic in allowing airfreight to continue to flow into the UK, including of medical equipment and PPE. East Midlands Airport Parkway station on the classic rail network, now proposed to also host HS2 in the IRP, is located 3½ miles from the airport.

We have worked with GM partners on the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) submission to the Committee’s Call for Evidence. As such, this response should be read in conjunction with the GMCA response. We also work closely with Midlands Connect and our local authority partners in the East Midlands, and have taken an active role in contributing to and reviewing their submissions to this Call.

Summary of Key Issues

As a business founded and headquartered in the North of England with operations in the East Midlands, we are clear in our ambition to see levelling up driving higher economic growth in the North and Midlands. It is widely acknowledged that infrastructure investment will play a key role in levelling up, and the IRP is intended to be a central plank of this.

We welcome the government’s commitment in the IRP to proceed with the expansion of HS2 onto Manchester and East Midlands Parkway, and to progress the core NPR network. However, we are concerned that the IRP, particularly its plans for NPR, does not represent the integrated investment plan and clear commitment to levelling up that was originally envisaged. Delivery of the original proposals for NPR would have been a step change in the quality of transport infrastructure in the North, and an irreversible commitment to this would have built early confidence in the delivery of levelling up over the coming decades.

Whilst the aims of seeking to improve delivery speed and value for public money set out in the IRP are laudable, the practical reality of the proposals are that the scope of improvements has been significantly reduced, and instead of an integrated network, similar to that for HS2, delivery of NPR and Midlands rail will be through a series of discrete projects. The North has already experienced the failure to deliver packages of rail improvements, with the partial delivery of the Northern Hub programme. The outcome of which was the failed timetable of May 2018, from which rail services across the North have had to be scaled back to protect reliability.

From a Manchester Airport perspective, key direct connections such as Sheffield have been lost, whilst other connections across the North have been significantly reduced in frequency. This situation is replicated across the North. One key aim of NPR was to provide stronger connectivity for Manchester Airport from across the whole North of England, reinforcing its role as an international gateway, and thereby driving global economic opportunities. This in turn would be expected to attract new route and more frequencies to key global markets, reinforcing the positive benefits for trade, investment and tourism, and thus levelling up.

Under the original NPR proposals, interim improvements would have been delivered to existing lines, with a new network then delivering high-speed connectivity across the whole North of England. The IRP proposals instead focus on delivering a series of upgrades.  Whilst there will be speed improvements on some core routes, there is not currently a clear path to even restoring the level of service envisioned in the May 2018 timetable, such as routes from Sheffield and Hull to Manchester Airport, let alone the new connections originally proposed, such as Bradford. Moreover, the vast majority of improvements are not seen until after HS2 is delivered, meaning the North and Midlands having to manage with a substandard rail service – further subject to construction disruptionfor over two decades until real improvements arrive. 

This delayed, second-class vision for IRP does not support the Government’s aspiration to begin levelling up economic growth as soon as possible – in fact it locks in most of the current inadequacies for almost another twenty years. This compromised approach will undermine the government’s wider efforts to level up the North, rather than help deliver it.

The published IRP does not set out what the basis of this re-scoping has been, beyond a reduction in costs. There needs to be transparency in the assessment that was undertaken to make these decisions so a meaningful appraisal of its impact upon levelling up can be made. We would normally expect government to be transparent and open about how such decisions have been made, to enable stakeholders to provide informed feedback on the government’s preferred approach. Whilst some further information has now been published, further detail and analysis is required to properly understand the economic implications of the government’s IRP proposals.

However, we believe there are three key issues that any assessment of the IRP needs to resolve:

Below we provide further details on the specific questions posed by the Committee in its Call for Evidence.

 

The contribution that the IRP will make to rail capacity and connectivity for

(a)  Passengers

The IRP represents a positive and welcome commitment to large-scale investment in rail infrastructure across the UK, and particularly in the North and Midlands. A legacy of underinvestment is apparent in the need for the Manchester Rail Taskforce having to reduce services in order to ensure reliable operation following the collapse of the May 2018 timetable. These services cannot realistically be reintroduced without significant further infrastructure investment, well illustrating the need for the IRP.

However, the IRP as currently formulated, fails to directly address these capacity and reliability issues on the Northern rail network. Under the original NPR proposals, interim improvements would have been delivered to existing lines, with a new network then delivering high-speed connectivity across the whole North of England. With the focus of IRP on upgrades, whilst there will be speed improvements on some core routes, there is not currently a clear path to even restoring the level of service envisioned in the May 2018 timetable, such as routes from Sheffield and Hull to Manchester Airport, let alone the new connections originally proposed, such as Bradford.

Moreover, whilst a few areas will see improvements delivered sooner than originally proposed, the vast majority of improvements within the IRP – particularly for the ‘core’ NPR network – will not be realised until after HS2 is delivered. As such, the focus on upgrades means disruption to (already substandard) existing services for over two decades until real improvements arrive. This is actually slower than originally planned and does not represent a meaningful contribution to levelling up.

Ultimately, the IRP does not provide the clear commitment to the transformational step change needed by the North and Midlands to drive levelling up, nor to meet growing passenger demand and the UK’s carbon targets.

(b) Freight

The IRP sees a significant reduction in the number of new lines being constructed, with the majority of investment beyond HS2 being into line upgrades. This inevitably results in lower speeds and less capacity for passenger services than dedicated high-speed lines, although the net cost–benefit is hard to assess until the government publishes the details of the appraisals sitting behind the IRP.

This approach also means that passenger services cannot be separated from freight services. Conflicts between faster and slower trains, especially freight trains, act as a significant limit to speed and capacity on mixed lines. The IRP has foregone the opportunity, set out within the original proposals for NPR (which were based on detailed appraisals by TfN), to overcome this limitation. This will inevitably limit the scope to grow rail freight but is also likely to limit passenger operations, both of which will have implications for both levelling up and carbon reduction. Full details of the appraisals sitting behind the IRP are needed to quantify the cost–benefit of the scale and implications of this downgrade.

(c)  In the Midlands & North

Perhaps the biggest disappointment with the IRP is that it does not represent the clear commitment to investing in and levelling up the North and Midlands originally promised. Because of decades of underinvestment and the structural imbalance of the UK economy, a step change in investment and ambition is needed to drive levelling up. Not only does the IRP fail to deliver this, the fact that it does not propose an integrated network, but rather a series of incremental upgrades, means individual projects risk being delayed, downgraded or scrapped during the development phase, meaning final delivery may well be even more limited than set out in the IRP. These risks would have been avoided with a clear one-off commitment to investing in new lines.

This integration also needs to extend to local transport networks, such as Metrolink in Greater Manchester, and equivalents elsewhere. The current proposals for HS2 in Manchester actually cause significant disruption to existing Metrolink services and delay and complicate the delivery of network expansions. Local transport services are key to making the new rail networks properly accessible to local areas, and therefore critical to ensuring the full benefits of the network are realised. For example, the proposed Manchester Airport high-speed station has a parkway location on a motorway junction that will create high volumes of new vehicle traffic unless Metrolink and other public transport interventions are enabled to allow access to the airport, local residents and existing public transport networks.

(d) The UK

As argued above, a focus on rebalancing investment towards the North and Midlands is long overdue and welcome, and central to plans for levelling up. This does not, however, diminish the continued need for an integrated transport strategy for the UK as a whole that considers national and international connectivity and networks for all transport modes. Whilst the Union Connectivity Review is an initial step in the right direction in this regard, it needs to be followed through with a comprehensive strategy and investment plan for all the nations and regions of the UK.

Whether and how the IRP will “level up” communities in the Midlands and the North

The IRP provides a clear commitment to tackle some of the most congested corridors across the North and Midlands. This is welcome, but should be seen in the context of these benefits not being realised for over 20 years. As such, beyond some construction benefits, the IRP is a long-term investment plan and not a short-term driver of recovery or levelling up.

For example, the Castlefield Corridor is one of the most congested rail corridors in the country and causes problems across the whole North of England. The IRP essentially plans to bypass this corridor through the creation of the new high-speed line from Crewe and Warrington via the Airport into Piccadilly, but will not come into operation until the delivery of HS2 in the early 2040s. The IRP provides no details of how, if at all, it will resolve the ongoing problems caused by the Castlefield Corridor in the meantime, leaving the North reliant on a substandard rail service for over two decades, limiting rather than encouraging levelling up.

Moreover, the IRP fails to deliver new corridors, such as into Bradford, that could have been transformational in levelling up. Ultimately, the IRP falls short of providing the integrated connectivity across the North and Midlands originally envisaged that would have represented a step change driving levelling up. The global connectivity intended to be delivered for the whole North and Midlands from access to Manchester Airport, driving international trade and investment, is just one manifestation of the type of transformation envisaged by the original plans that are now severely constrained in the IRP.

How the IRP will affect rail infrastructure and services outside the Midlands and the North

As argued above, a focus on rebalancing investment towards the North and Midlands is long overdue and welcome. This does not, however, diminish the continued need for an integrated transport strategy for the UK as a whole. In this context, important commitments to the North and Midlands should not completely crowd out investment requirements elsewhere in the country, which will be to the detriment of the UK overall.

The challenges to central Government, Great British Railways, regional and local authorities, transport bodies and other stakeholders in delivering the IRP

There are two key challenges to delivery: the funding put forward to deliver the proposals; and the disruption to existing networks to deliver upgrades rather than new lines.

Whilst it must be recognised that the IRP represents a welcome and major investment into rail in the North and Midlands, the funding put forward beyond HS2 is not committed and is not enough to deliver all of the elements set out within the IRP, let alone the original proposals designed to be transformational for the North.

Specifically in the case of the Manchester Airport Station, a local funding contribution is expected for its construction, unlike any other station on the HS2 network. Analysis undertaken in conjunction with the DfT highlights it has a very positive cost–benefit ratio, driving ridership and revenue for HS2 alongside economic benefits. It is therefore unclear why full government funding is not being made available for the station, given not delivering the station would significantly weaken the business cases of both HS2 and NPR.

Any third party investment into rail needs to be considered commercially and should not be seen as a route to fill gaps in government funding commitments. The reduction of scope in the IRP reduces the benefits that might support third party investment, whilst the delivery time frames further weaken the investment case. Indeed, the extended delivery timescale also creates blight along the line of route and particularly around the station sites that will cause real issues for impacted stakeholders.

The focus on upgrades over new lines will cause long-term disruption on current rail networks that are already over stretched and unreliable. This will need to be proactively managed by Great British Railways to minimise the impact of this disruption as far as possible to ensure that the costs of delivering the IRP do not outweigh its eventual benefits.

Further, the piecemeal nature of the IRP will make the coordination of delivery difficult, and risks individual elements being delayed, downgraded or cancelled without full regard of the impact on the network as a whole. This has clear parallels with the Northern Hub project, which was designed as a package but ultimately only partially delivered. This created more problems for the network than it solved, and was behind the May 2018 timetable failure, and continues to impact on the network today and into the future.

How the rail schemes in the IRP will integrate and interact with HS2

The reality of the IRP is that it first and foremost represents a commitment to the delivery of Phase 2 of HS2, fully for the Western leg and partially for the Eastern leg. Beyond some relatively small-scale upgrades, the remainder of the IRP schemes follow on from HS2, often utilising at least partially the new HS2 infrastructure. Any opportunity to accelerate delivery in the North and Midlands has as a result been lost, and indeed the IRP sees delivery timescales in most cases slip from original plans.

There is also a clear contrast between the phased delivery of an integrated network for HS2 and the piecemeal approach to other schemes in the IRP. This means the ambition of creating integrated high-speed rail networks across the North (NPR) and Midlands (Midlands Rail Engine) has been lost, and will see some areas unable to integrate into new services. For example, the loss of electrification out to the east coast means the Hull and its surround areas will no longer be on NPR, and NPR trains will only be able to run out to the east coast if they are bimodal, increasing costs and reducing carbon benefits.

There is a risk that as individual schemes are developed, integration costs are amongst the first to be reduced, with far bigger impacts on the wider network than apparent within scheme level appraisals.

How the rail improvement schemes in the IRP were selected, and whether those selections represent equity between and within regions

Ultimately, the focus of the IRP appears to have been on cutting back on overall programme costs, rather than a strategic investment programme driven by the economic benefits it could deliver. This has meant consolidation around a core scheme and the loss of other elements that could have been transformational, such as a new high-speed line and station in Bradford. Whilst the core investments identified in the IRP are critical (as they are the key pain points and are needed to support the overall network), it has resulted in the wider benefits the original proposals were designed to deliver being diluted. This appears to run counter to the new ethos for investment set out in the revised Green Book and espoused in government policies around levelling up, which is intended to prioritise strategic investments over narrow cost – benefit criteria.

Whether the IRP represents value for money for UK taxpayers

To begin to answer this question requires the government to publish the analysis that underpins the IRP, and this should be done as soon as possible. Whilst, costs have been reduced within the IRP, net cost reduction is in many cases not as high as gross, since additional costs may be incurred in upgrades compared to new lines. And these need to be considered against the loss of economic benefit generated, and – in line with the updated Green Book – not simply narrow assessments of time savings and costs.

Ultimately, the overall cost savings expected whilst clearly material are relatively small in terms of the overall scheme, and it is unclear that these justify the likely much larger loss of economic value or transformational impact of the original scheme. Transparency of the appraisals undertaken to inform decision making are needed to enable informed future debate of the IRP and how it can be developed and improved for the benefit of not only the North and Midlands but the UK as a whole.

January 2022