UK: A Liverpool – Manchester Railway Board has been launched by the two cities’ metro mayors and other stakeholders to lead the development of proposals for a high speed line between the conurbations.

The government has said that up to £17bn is to be made available for the new line following the scrapping of the northern legs of High Speed 2, and it has invited the mayors to advise on the best plan.

The board was launched at the UK’s Real Estate Investment & Infrastructure Forum on May 22, 200 years and two days after the founding of the original Liverpool & Manchester Railway company in 1824.

It comprises Liverpool City Region Mayor Steve Rotheram, Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, Manchester City Council Leader Bev Craig, Liverpool City Council Leader Liam Robinson, Warrington Council Leader Hans Mundry and Manchester Airport Group Managing Director Chris Woodroofe.

The board said it intends to work with the private sector to build the case for ‘the most ambitious line possible’.

Burnham said the new line would ‘absolutely happen’, unlike HS2. He said ‘the company founded in 1824 built the railway in six years, can we do that? I don’t know but we’ll do our best.’ He wants the new line to be ‘the most innovative and greenest railway in the world 200 years later. This is what true levelling up should be.’

Burnham said HS2 was ‘a railway planned far away’ without ‘a place-based approach’, and said ‘you should start by asking “what can [the new line] enable for this region, what can it do as it connects beyond, over the Pennines and into the rest of the north of England?” That’s what we’re about.’

Liverpool Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram said the project is not just about joining the two cities, but enabling them to work together, linking to Manchester airport and getting more freight from the port of Liverpool onto rail.

He expressed relief that previous options presented by the government for Liverpool were now ‘off the table’, noting that a proposed blockade of Lime Street for 18 months to three years or even more would have been economically damaging.

‘Think what that would do to the visitor economy’, he urged. ‘We have obviously rejected that. The real chance for us now is to look afresh at those plans and to bring together a group of specialist experts, people with knowledge of how you actually make these things work and then get recognition from a national government of any persuasion that this is something that happens to be based in the northwest but is of a national importance.’

The mayors expect the plans to go forward regardless of the outcome of the general election. ‘We had a lot of conversations around the HS2 decision. The shadow Transport Secretary has committed to this project and the party has committed to NPR’, Burnham said. ‘This is a growth project and that’s how we will position it to an incoming Labour government.’


Liverpool – Manchester Railway Board

Rotheram said ‘we need to scope it all out before we know the price of the full railway’.

Liverpool City Council Leader Cllr Liam Robinson suggested that the new line would be easier and cheaper to build than upgrading existing infrastructure.

‘Much of this is about developing new railway infrastructure on flat agricultural land’, he said. ‘It doesn’t mean there aren’t complexities entering both cities and there are tunnels required, but much of this is as straightforward as building new infrastructure can be and much easier than having to tunnel through big hills and dealing with big urban areas.’

The mayors indicated that funding over and above the ringfenced £17bn could come from land value capture, where borrowing is set against the future value of the land.

Noting that this is used around the world and was employed for the London Underground extension to Battersea Power Station, Burnham said ‘we have to come up with a way of funding the right railway for the northwest using the £17bn as our starting point, and there is still a discussion to be had about what the specification is for what remains of the HS2 alignment; can the £17bn go further?’

Rotheram added ‘if we don’t do things like land value capture then we’ve got a fixed budget and that’s not going to be enough to achieve the ambitions we have. We can’t always be knocking on the Treasury door, although we will do that, because we think this is of national significance. If we can find options like they did in London [for the Elizabeth Line] then we’d be fools not to examine those things.’

The mayors noted that investment zones in both cities provided some business rate flexibility, with Burnham adding they might ask the Treasury to ‘take a patient approach to the land value capture, let the value come back over half a century or a century’.

Options on the table

Mayors Rotheram and Burnham

Both mayors welcomed the amendment to the HS2 Phase 2b Bill to cover the NPR line into Manchester, and gave credit to Rail Minister Huw Merriman for listening to arguments from the region and putting options on the table, including the possibility that a hub for the additional services at Manchester Piccadilly station could be built underground.

Looking at the two city centre stations, Rotheram said it was time to move beyond ‘trying to squeeze platforms into Liverpool Lime Street through the narrow cutting and tunnels’. Work has switched to looking at bringing the new line into a completely rebuilt Liverpool Central station, which is ‘in dire need of rebuilding’ to add capacity.

The rebuilt station would be connected to nearby Lime Street by underground walkways.

Manchester Piccadilly platforms 13 and 14

At Manchester Piccadilly, the chance to look again at an underground station was also welcomed by Burnham and City Council Leader Bev Craig. ‘If we are going to build a line into Manchester let’s get it right and we need to make it fit for the future’, she emphasised. She endorsed the option for an underground site, with development of the land over it being used to fund its construction.

Craig expressed frustration over past cost estimates used by project promoter HS2 Ltd to rule out an underground station, saying ‘we were able to disprove their figure and gave a margin of £1·5bn to £2·5bn to their £4bn. We’re looking at the design of the station at Piccadilly, so it isn’t self-limiting over time, so now we need to have the technical conversations over things like whether to have 400 m platforms or 800 m platforms. We don’t think that what we’re talking about is some value engineered cheap and cheerful version; we just think that actually it could be done differently, it could be done better and that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s more expensive.’

Burnham also underlined the need to use the new line as a starting point for the creation of new opportunities for freight, including the relocation of Manchester’s existing intermodal hub at Trafford Park to sites at Port Salford and Parkside near Newton-le-Willows. This would reduce congestion around Manchester and also better serve the port of Liverpool, he believed.

Across the Pennines

Transpennine Route Upgrade (Photo COWI)

Burnham said ‘I’ve always argued for a direct line through Manchester on to Bradford and then to Leeds. The problem we have is that the government didn’t invite us to comment on that, so the reason we’re doing Liverpool to Manchester is that was the door that was opened to us.’

He said conversations should be reopened about a new alignment to serve ‘Leeds, Bradford, Manchester, Manchester Airport, Warrington, Liverpool’ as ‘the economic value of that would be higher’.

He said progress with the Transpennine Route Upgrade ‘gives confidence that the whole project is starting to stack up, but the north of England needs that capacity and the new capacity created by the NPR fast lines’.

Manchester Airport Group MD Chris Woodroofe said ‘the airport serves 200 different destinations and the journey from Liverpool centre will see an improvement from over an hour today to just 25 min’.

He said ‘there are 30 million passengers calling out for better rail connections’, adding that 40% of London airport passengers arrive by rail but the figure for Manchester is 15%, with poor rail infrastructure given as the reason.

‘I couldn’t be more excited and delighted to be asked to be part of the board; with Steve and Andy in charge we might get some railway infrastructure built in the UK for once’, he added.