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200 years on from the first railway, the north west is on verge of rail revolution

Two hundred years and two days on from the original Liverpool and Manchester Railway Company’s formation, there are hopes the two cities could be on the brink of another rail revolution.

They are hopes shared by Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, his Liverpool City Region counterpart Steve Rotherham — plus Bev Craig and Liam Robinson, the council leaders in both cities. That’s because they are members of the new Liverpool-Manchester Railway Board, which has been tasked with delivering a new line between the north west’s largest urban areas.

“This is north west history being made today,” Andy Burnham announced on Wednesday (May 22) at UK Real Estate, Investment, and Infrastructure Forum in Leeds. “On May 20, 1824, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway Company was formed on that day. Here we are 200 years and two days later. You have before you the first members of the new Liverpool-Manchester Railway Board.”

If it comes to fruition, then passengers will be able to nip between Liverpool city centre and Manchester city centre in as little as 35 minutes. They will get off at a revamped Liverpool Central Station, or new underground station at Manchester Piccadilly.

There will be only four stops on the line — the other two being Warrington Bank Quay and Manchester Airport — as the board also eyes separating stopping commuter services, freight trains, and speedy inter-city routes onto different tracks. In all, the project is going to cost at least £17 billion, it’s thought.

And despite the eye-watering sum, in announcing the board, there was a shared sense of belief among the four politicians that, this time, the project won’t hit the buffers.

That’s because of some moves made in Parliament last night, Andy Burnham said. Firstly, the HS2 Crewe to Manchester Bill was formally amended to become the Northern Powerhouse Rail Manchester to Liverpool Bill.

“So there is a Bill in parliament to support the work of this board,” Mr Burnham pointed out. ‘Critically’, he added, rail minister Huw Merriman also ‘confirmed in parliament that an underground station for Manchester Piccadilly is on the table and in a letter to Steve [Rotherham] that the worst option for Liverpool is off the table’.

The Labour shadow cabinet are said to be supportive of the plans, too, should they win power at this year’s election. 

Those developments represent ‘real progress’, Mr Burnham said. But he can be more buoyed by the fact that the government has ‘confirmed’, in his words, £17 billion ‘is still in the plan to deliver this new railway’.

And while that is a welcome budget to be starting with, it does expose a potential pitfall in this new railway plan — by the mayor’s own admission.

“I think what we are trying to say is ‘how do we pay for those ambitions in Liverpool city centre, Warrington, the Airport, and in Manchester city centre?’,” Mr Burnham added. “It’s down to us to see if we can come up with a way to do it and fund the right railway for the north west.”

However, even with question marks over how much of the new project the guaranteed funding will — and no firm commitment to the much-desired-for new Piccadilly and Liverpool Central stations — all four presented a front of confidence.

One suggested solution to the funding question is land value capture, where ‘the increase in land value which comes from policy decisions’ is accounted for on the balance sheet.“What’s missing from development in UK cities is that basic premise of borrowing against future growth,” explained Coun Bev Craig in a press conference afterwards. “Land value capture is one mechanism of realising that, but that is a wider ask of the sector of government reform anyway — which isn’t specific to this line — so it’s not necessarily as unusual as might sound, because cities across the country are asking for similar powers.”

The board is additionally  keen to work with private firms — even opening it up to expressions of interest — to deliver the project. Alongside this, there is the aforementioned plan to re-examine where freight trains go in Greater Manchester, which currently travel through the city centre. Mr Burnham wants to see the Trafford Park freight terminal relocated to Port Salford, or the developing Parkside in Warrington, just over the border from Wigan, to alleviate rail congestion.

Additionally, there are still long-term ambitions for a direct line ‘through Manchester to Bradford and Leeds’, he told journalists.

Any potential Yorkshire expansion is secondary to the Liverpool-Manchester connection, it appears. But that doesn’t mean it will be here any time soon, however.

“That company back then built that railway in six years,” Mr Burnham said. “Can we do that?,” he then asked the panel.

 

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