The transport lead for Cumbria’s Local Enterprise Partnership says regional leaders need to focus on working with the Government over the coming year to deliver a rail plan which benefits the north and the wider UK economy.

The Government’s £96bn Integrated Rail Plan (IRP), published in November, was met with a chorus of disappointment from figures including Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham and some Conservative MPs in former ‘red wall’ seats.

Westmorland and Lonsdale MP Tim Farron said it was “gobsmacking” that the document did not mention Cumbria once, let alone electrification of the Furness Line from Lancaster to Barrow or a passing loop on the Lakes Line from Oxenholme to Windermere.

The ire of the northern leaders was inflamed by the plan’s scaling back of HS2 in the north by scrapping the extension of HS2 from the East Midlands to Leeds. It also failed to deliver a new line between Leeds and Manchester, a key part of Northern Powerhouse Rail.

Dr Steve Curl, who leads on transport and infrastructure on the board of Cumbria LEP, and also sits on the board of Transport for the North (TFN) says he believes the plans have been scaled back due to the financial pressure put on the Treasury as a result of Covid-19. He says they do not meet the commitments Government has previously made on Northern Powerhouse Rail.

He says the important thing now is for TFN to engage with Government to work towards a plan which is on budget but delivers more economic benefit for the north.

Regional leaders on the TFN board, including Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, have already said they would consider making a “local” financial contribution to developing an improved plan.

"Getting from where we are to full Northern Powerhouse Rail is a very big step; the IRP fails in three main areas: capacity on the rail lines for passengers and freight, connectivity between major towns and cities in the north, and the enormous disruption from work to enhance existing rail lines as opposed to building new lines," says Steve.

"What we've ended up with is a programme of rail improvements, which has very little new railway line. The whole focus of Transport for the North is improved east-west connectivity across the north. There just isn't much of that in the Integrated Rail Plan.”

He says refurbishments and improvements to lines may reduce travel times but will not necessarily increase capacity on lines that are already congested with passengers and freight.

"In short, the IRP falls a long way short, compared with the economic, employment and carbon reduction benefits of the more joined up proposals by TFN for a Northern Powerhouse Rail network, even if they had to be introduced more gradually than originally planned.”

He says the Government should have worked more closely with Transport for the North to deliver the maximum benefits from the investment available. He hopes this can now be achieved through discussions with Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and the Department of Transport.

A key issue also remains the retention and hopefully improvement of frequent direct passenger services to and from Scotland and London from Oxenholme, Penrith and Carlisle.

Carlisle station is seeing significant improvements in station facilities and train services because HS2 trains will stop there and split to go to both Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Under present plans HS2 tracks will only run as far as Crewe with HS2 trains continuing on the West Coast Mainline on existing lines and stopping at Carlisle.

However, they will not be able to travel at full speed on the existing tracks.

In November the Union Connectivity Review, commissioned by Government to look into how transport projects can improve the economy and people’s lives in the UK, concluded a HS2 link from Crewe to the West Coast Mainline south of Wigan (the so-called Golborne link) would be beneficial.

However, it said it could reduce journey times even more if it connected to the West Coast Mainline elsewhere, “for example at some point south of Preston”.

If this recommendation goes ahead it might facilitate continued and potentially improved direct services to all Cumbria’s West Coast Mainline stations.

“This is really important for Cumbria’s residents and all aspects of our economy, especially the visitor economy,” says Steve.

Cumbria Chamber of Commerce chief executive Suzanne Caldwell says her concern is that the plan may herald even more reductions in service to Cumbria in the future.

"There’s been scaling back in much bigger places that have traditionally been treated as much more important than Cumbria,” she says.

"I know that people are not happy that the current plans are for only one HS2 stop in Cumbria, but it's better than nothing. It does make you think that there's a real danger we could end up with no stop in Cumbria.”