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The Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) set out by the Secretary of State for Transport has promised to improve; transport links across the North and Midlands, reduce train times and improve stations. This should show signs of promise for British railways, but, it is long overdue. It is imperative that the government acts on their plan in order to take action that is long overdue. 

Improving rail networks in the UK will offer significant benefits, particularly for the North of England in terms of infrastructure and interconnectedness, boosting localised and national economies. Simultaneously, railways becoming a more viable alternative for commuters would be a boost for the environment, as taking trains over cars for a prolonged period of time reduces carbon emissions by 80%, contributing to the Government’s net-zero goals. 

The IRP came off the back of the removal of the Leeds leg from the HS2 project. In principal the plan does show signs of progress, from the currently dilapidated and neglected state of the current system. However, there are significant reasons to be sceptical. Engineers have claimed that the current plans are not possible without segregating services, whilst local Tory MPs claimed they felt “short-changed”, due to the disappointment of the decade long HS2 plan being withdrawn for mere rail upgrades. 

It seems inevitable with the removal of HS2 for the North, that the economic makeup of England will be further deformed by the high-speed rails existing in the Midlands and South-East of the country. In addition, the previous plans for rail reform set out in 2019 remain untouched for over 900 days. The delay to the Rail Network Enhancement Pipeline (RNEP) will undoubtedly have knock-on effects on the IRP. This will further maintain the current economic divide between the North and South.

The benefits of an improved and more viable commuter network in the North would not be limited to the region, but also benefit the country as a whole. Infrastructure projects would produce a multitude of jobs, whilst also improving the length and quality of travel. A connected North would increase worker productivity and efficiency by bringing people and businesses closer together, encouraging further investment and economic expansion. 

In the long-term this would help to create a more balanced national economy and bridge the North-South divide. Research conducted before the cancellation of the northern branch of HS2 demonstrated the economic successes rail improvement in the North would bring. For example, if HS2 were to go ahead with the original plan, a further 3m people and 94,000 businesses would be within a two-hour commute from Sheffield.

Furthermore, trust between those in the North and the central government has been eroded over a number of years due to constant transport promises that have never been acted upon. This is emphasised by the recent HS2 U-turn. As a result of these broken and empty promises, the North is in dire need of significant transport investment. By enacting the IRP plans and developing methods of short-term improvements (such as improving stations and service consistency) to supplement longer-term aspirations, the government would simultaneously develop trust with the public whilst also giving the North the investment it needs.

The environmental upside of an improved transport network in the North are as important as the economic benefits. In 2021 the government announced its net-zero carbon goals. It seems vital to the plans that public transport is a key focus to offset carbon emissions of cars. This is emphasised by statistics that show trains are the most beneficial form of transport for the climate. Further, railways can be electrified, which would reduce both air and noise pollution. Despite the government’s net-zero policy explicitly stating rails would be electrified, the Treasury recently blocked plans to electrify 12,500km of rails due to costs. When it is taken into account that only 179km of rails were electrified last year, the government seems reluctant to push for real change and deliver on decarbonising the railways.

The government must do more to show their willingness to provide an alternative to cars. The newly announced plans to reduce the prices of off-peak travel do not go far enough to encourage commuters to stop travelling by car. Travelling on peak train services remains around 13 times more expensive than car travel. When coupling this with annual price increases, it is unsurprising that the number of commuters taking the trains are diminished. With the current plans to reduce carbon emissions being put forward, now seems like a critical time for the government to heavily invest in viable alternatives to car travel. This alternative can be provided by ensuring ticket prices are frozen, with a view to reducing prices in the future. 

It is imperative that the government harnesses the multitude of opportunities and benefits that the rails can provide the country. The government must use the rails to its strengths in the fight to prevent climate change. It is imperative that RNEP is revisited as this will likely hinder IRP. By making the trains an attractive and viable alternative to cars the government can reduce carbon emissions, especially by electrifying the railways and eventually gain the capacity to convert them to run off entirely renewable energy sources.

Ed is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Ben Collins]