Transport for the North

The topic for a recent Bentley TwinTalks presentation was Transport for the North's 30 year Strategic Transport Plan and its proposed Northern Power House Rail Programme. The aim is to enable the North of England to reach its true economical potential by investment in transport and active travel while reaching net zero carbon target by 2045, writes David Chadwick

As a Scouser, many years ago, the classmates in my primary school North of Manchester where we moved to, just 20 odd miles away, used to make fun of my Liverpool accent. I don't know how much has changed, but people from other parts of the country would be amazed at the variation in accents from one side of the North English coast to the other. The stratification of the region is further exacerbated by the difficulty of travelling by public transport from one side of the country to the other, which is often essential as the overworked M62 is the only viable route across the Pennines. Anybody living on the NW coast wishing to work in Hull, or even Leeds, faces lengthy train journeys with frequent changes on slow and crowded trains on ancient rail networks.

Changes are obviously needed, and HS2 has probably been the catalyst for them. The region's civil and business leaders have been tasked with driving through improvements in the form of Transport for the North, which delivered its 30 year Strategic Transport Plan in 2019. The plan clearly set out the building blocks for releasing the North from the straightjacket it finds itself in - a lack of transport investment over the last four decades.

The new Chief Executive for Transport for the North (TfN) is Martin Tugwell, who is due to take up his appointment this summer. In the meantime, the Northern Powerhouse Rail Director, Tim Wood, has been holding the baton as Interim Chief Executive until Martin Tugwell joins. As such, Tim was invited to present one of Bentley Systems TwinTalks on the Northern Powerhouse initiative, hosted by Antony Oliver.

The Northern Powerhouse Rail The biggest single piece of investment in the North of England since the Industrial Revolution, the series of upgrades to existing lines and investment in new routes is set to transform the connectivity, capacity and resilience of the rail network in the region, but it is more than just an investment in infrastructure. It will provide better connections between the major economic centres (Leeds, Manchester, Hull, Liverpool, Sheffield, Newcastle, and Manchester Airport), enabling them to act as an integrated economy that will generate opportunities and attract greater investment in the area, while crreating thousands of jobs.

It will also provide additional benefits for the environment. Due to the inefficiencies of the current rail network, Northerners have tended to rely on personal transport (60%), hence the frequently gridlocked M62 and other motorways. If train services are faster and more frequent, Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) estimates that they could shift 58,000 cars off the roads every day, enabling drivers to use more environmentally sound electrified rail services. Added to this, an extra 35,000 seats at peak hours would be available.

The NPR Strategic Outline Case is due to be delivered to the Government later this year, following the imminent publication of the Integrated Rail Plan, which will lay out how it intends to integrate Northern Powerhouse Rail, HS2 and the Transpennine Upgrade. Transport for the North already has a preferred transformational network covering all seven corridors and an agreed phasing plan, which was approved by the TfN Board earlier this year. Tim Wood says he hopes spades will be in the ground by the mid 2020s, digging the foundations for a brighter economic future for the North of England and its 15.4 million residents.

There are two major considerations that need to be taking place in this huge and long-lasting project. The first is an increased demand for a trained and talented workforce - bearing in mind the competition for resources from HS2 and the Transpennine route upgrade. Consequently, Tim said, we have to energise the recruitment and training of engineers in the local colleges and universities, and to liaise with contractors and consultants to ascertain their preferences for new talent. Most of us in the industry are middle-aged or older, and it is the younger generation who will be taking this forward.

The other issue is the adoption of the latest technologies to enable the projects to be run efficiently, meet demanding environmental targets, and overcome the endemic under-investment in the region. At the forefront of the technological enhancements will be the recourse to digital twin technology, which will enable simulations to be made and decisions made in a virtual environment before they are implemented on the ground.

The need to improve efficiencies within the project were highlighted by Antony Oliver, fielding a question from one of the TwinTalks audience - Roger Ford of Modern Railways - who was concerned at the replication of bureaucratic overheads impacting costs on the Transpennine Route Upgrade (TRU), and the need to set up an environment that would not create the same failings as in the TRU. Another question was asked about the impact of COVID-19 on our working practices, undermining some of the assumptions made prior to the report's development.

Tim responded by stating that the North was disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, partly because the economy and industry in the region didn't allow large parts of the population the opportunity to work from home, but he explained that HS2, TRU, and NPR are long-term programmes, and we would eventually be getting back to the sort of growth (194%) in rail patronage that we saw in the last 20 years.

NPR will use lean principles and be a challenging client dedicated to delivering value for the taxpayer and maintaining tight deadlines, which so far on the programme have been achieved in full. NPR will provide increased capacity in the form of a Turn up and Go Metro System with 6 trains an hour in each direction between key city regions like Manchester to Leeds via Central Bradford, or Liverpool to Manchester via Central Warrington and a new Airport station at MIA, this coupled with journey times slashed.

NPR will build more stations that reflect the way people's working habits are changing: i.e. to use them as business meeting places, rather than as just a thoroughfare, and to ensure that they are integrated with local transport facilities, such as trams and buses.

Northern Powerhouse Rail is, according to Tim, the most complex rail scheme he has seen, with a complete upgrade of a network laid down by the Victorians, and which involves new lines and significant upgrades, decarbonisation of the network by electrification of the technology, and the digging of numerous tunnels through the Pennines, having first of all surveyed the terrain they will go through. It also needs to allow HS2 trains to run on NPR lines.

That means a huge amount of data is being amassed from every technology involved. Tim worked with Mark Coates of Bentley Systems on a Major Project Association paper, which looked at the power of digital twin technology and its use in data predictive analysis. It has now become an important feature of the project, enabling huge efficiencies to be made by simulating sections of the network and to provide a working and sustainable virtual environment to support the strategic plans.

A fascinating insight into the extent of the technology being used, and its possibilities, has been provided by Professor Peter Woodward at Leeds University, who has used some of the data to analyse the terrain's geology and undulations in order to create a simulated train line on the track which responds to curves on the line at different speeds. It allows users to get a feel for what it will be like travelling on NPR (and perhaps forestall the initial negative reactions that Pendolino passengers raised).

The drive towards a net-zero economy is a large feature of the project. The aim to reduce operational carbon emissions from the transport network has resulted in a total shift away from fossil fuel burning diesel transport to electrified systems, and the rail electrification program is a large part of this. NPR will put more trains into the network and reduce reliance on diesel trains. Set against this, as mentioned in NPR's Options Appraisal, is a corresponding reduction in carbon reliant road transport - and the more road transport is decarbonised, the lower the carbon benefits of NPR become. The project is reliant on the decongestion of the alternative routes as a motivating or validating factor.

Like HS2, the pros and cons will continue to be debated, but we have to remember we are aiming to develop a viable transport strategy for the region that will last as long as the legacy Victorian one has.