Manchester has long been a city divided. Mancunians pride themselves on the colour of their blood – red or blue depending on football team. A north-south divide contrasts the former manufacturing towns in the north of the conurbation against more affluent quarters to the south. And rail travellers to the city centre are divided by origin into arrivals at Piccadilly or Victoria.

There is sharp contrast between the two main line stations – Piccadilly was rated best station in the country for customer satisfaction in 2007 whilst Victoria in 2009 attracted headlines as the worst or, using the schoolteachers’ euphemism, ‘most in need of improvement’.

Products of competing Victorian-era railway companies, they have never had a direct link. In today’s age, when the competitor is the motor car and passenger expectation is for easy interchange, that is a serious drawback.

But this will soon change. In his budget statement on 23rd March 2011, the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced £85 million to fund a new link between Piccadilly and Victoria. The innocent-sounding name of the scheme – the Ordsall Chord – belies the fact that this is the first, and most significant, stage of the Northern Hub – a plan to transform rail travel across the north of England as part of an ambitious strategy to unlock the full potential of the North’s economy.

The Northern Way

Flat caps, pies, smoking mill chimneys, rain – it’s grim up north. Unfortunately the economic reality supports the stereotype. The North consistently underperforms. If productivity and employment of the northern regions matched the UK average, government statistics show that the UK would be some £29 billion per annum better off.

In 2004, the three northern Regional Development Agencies joined forces to form The Northern Way. Their challenge was to answer a simple question – what should the North do differently to accelerate, significantly, the rate of growth of its economy? Reporting back three years later, they identified transport as a top priority with three objectives: better links within city regions, better links between city regions and better links to international gateways.

The first enables commuting, providing easier access to work. The second gives agglomeration benefits: businesses become more productive when they are better connected to other firms and markets. The third is links to ports and airports, and in the North this means Manchester Airport, the UK’s largest outside London.

Motorways between the northern cities are already busy – morning peak congestion is reckoned to add 32 minutes to the 46-mile journey between Leeds and Manchester. Use of the hard shoulders may provide some temporary relief given that new roads have little funding at present. The evidence shows that motorway congestion will worsen and is already acting as a constraint to growth in the North.

So can railways save the day? Without changes to the current network, unfortunately the answer is no. Many routes are operating at capacity. Further, there are multiple constraints so no single intervention can deliver a substantial improvement, making it difficult to generate a business case for an individual scheme.

Three future paths are possible for rail. To do nothing, carrying on as at present, is unacceptable as overcrowding will become worse and worse. Doing a minimum could provide longer trains to relieve crowding, but studies show that only 18% of the untapped economic benefit is captured. Do more is the challenge set by The Northern Way and requires a significantly increased level of service with a wider range of direct trains and better connections, possible only through enhancements to the existing infrastructure.

The Northern Hub

Network Rail’s Northern Hub proposal embraces the ‘do more’ philosophy. A strategy of interventions at 17 locations is proposed, enabling an extra 700 trains per day to run across the north of England, an increase of 40%, generating 3.5 million more journeys a year.

The beauty of the Northern Hub is that it has linked together a series of schemes, demonstrated the potential timetable improvements that could result and married together detailed transport, passenger and economic models to provide a robust justification which shows an overall benefit to the North’s economy of some £4.2 billion.

Using The Northern Way’s economic growth models and showing what could happen if rail capacity was made available to meet the demand, the proposed £530 million investment generates an extremely high benefit:cost ratio of 4.0, double the typical value for rail schemes.

The most critical problem is the bottleneck of rail lines in and around Manchester which restricts the frequency, speed and reliability of services on key routes throughout the region. Around half of all rail connections in the North involve a start, finish or transit through the city. These include the inter-regional trans-Pennine services serving Liverpool, central Lancashire, Sheffield, Leeds, Hull and the North East. There are the long-distance services to Birmingham, London, Wales and the South Coast. On top of these are commuter services plus the international connection to Manchester Airport.

There are three key issues to be resolved in the city centre area: conflicting movements on the approach to Piccadilly, platform capacity and capacity beyond Piccadilly through Oxford Road. Two alternative strategies have emerged – either increase traffic into Piccadilly or focus development on Victoria.

The Piccadilly solution

Piccadilly is undoubtedly the premier station – it has the London services, a recent makeover and the high ratings. Unfortunately it is full. The main platforms 1 to 9 have a timetabled occupancy of over 80%. Potential enhancements include improving the track layout to platforms 10 to 12 which are currently reached from a restrictive single-track lead. After that, additional platforms would be needed. If trains are lengthened the problem worsens, as many platforms are currently shared by more than one short train.

On the approaches, east-west traffic conflicts with north-south movements. A Scarborough to Liverpool service, for example, has to cross every other track to get from Ashburys to the through lines at platforms 13 and 14. One such movement consumes six minutes of capacity of the entire throat. Services to Manchester Airport from the North East, Leeds and Sheffield have to turn back at Piccadilly, taking up valuable platform time and crossing the London fast lines.

These conflicts could be removed by heavy civil engineering – a flyover at Ardwick has been suggested. However, the disruption would be severe – lengthy blockades would almost certainly be needed. This would be a huge scheme with little prospect of phasing – around £500 million of capital investment could be needed over a short period.

There are other drawbacks. Even with the additional infrastructure, performance analysis suggests that the modified layout would produce no improvement in performance over the current layout once additional services were added. And hypothesising for the future, concentrating ever-more services on Piccadilly could limit options for a new high speed line to approach or share the station.

Victoria, victorious

The preferred alternative is to increase use of Victoria. This paradigm shift would reroute many of the trans-Pennine services there, avoiding the conflicting moves at Piccadilly. A complete recast of the timetable would be needed, together with new infrastructure to link Piccadilly and Victoria – the Ordsall Chord.

The theory is that the east-west Leeds to Liverpool trains get routed via Victoria to remove the throat-crossing conflicts at Piccadilly. This can be achieved on the existing network, running from Stalybridge via Ashton-under-Lyne and Miles Platting rather than Guide Bridge and Ardwick, then continuing through Victoria and Salford Central. Using this route also delivers a reduction in journey time and fits the pattern of economic growth in Manchester.

Services to Manchester Airport necessarily need to pass through Piccadilly, however it is desirable for all Leeds trains to call at the same station. Airport-Leeds trains therefore get rerouted via Victoria, using the Ordsall Chord to pass from the Airport and Piccadilly, through Oxford Road to Victoria and then on to Leeds. This avoids turning back at Piccadilly and removes other throat conflicts.

Similar strategies can be devised for the Sheffield trains, with potential routeing available via Marple and Ashburys to reach Victoria. New possibilities are also opened up, such as direct trains from Bradford, Halifax and the Calder Valley line to Manchester Airport using the new chord. Access to the many areas of the city centre could be significantly improved with a 15-minute interval service between Piccadilly, Oxford Road, Deansgate and Victoria.

Getting a grip

Mention of blue-sky thinking and fundamental timetable change is enough to increase the blood pressure of the hardiest railway professional. Previous attempts have foundered – in 1979 Parliamentary powers were obtained for a similar link which was never built. As well as the engineering works, additional rolling stock is likely to be required and the three key franchises for Virgin, Northern Rail and First TransPennine Express are all due for reletting in the next two years, so there is a lot involved.

Project sponsor Rachel Hogley is part of the team that manages the Northern Hub scheme for Network Rail. She explains that the project has reached GRIP 2 investment stage following completion of work by Mott MacDonald. The preferred package of investments has been determined, having considered a long-list of 51 possible interventions throughout the North. Crucially too, the assessment work has concluded that the greatest benefits will be delivered by a Victoria-based solution.

Project timescales are determined by Network Rail’s funding periods. “The Northern Hub is one of the big new schemes for Control Period 5”, says Hogley. This funding allocation will run from 2014 to 2019 so the scheme needs to feed into key documents including the Initial Industry Plan, expected this summer, and the High Level Output Statement in summer 2012. Confirmation of funding – and hence the decision on whether the Northern Hub project can proceed – is expected in autumn 2013.

Meanwhile, design work will proceed to GRIP 3 stage by early 2012 with the appointment of consultants this summer. There are multiple ways of performing the enhancements at each of the 17 locations, says Hogley. For example, options have been developed for 25, 30 and 35mph linespeeds through the Ordsall Chord. The GRIP 3 work will carry out the necessary appraisals to refine each intervention to a single option.

The Chancellor’s announcement for the chord therefore came earlier than expected. “A happy surprise”, says Adrian Bocking, Network Rail’s systems integration manager, “although obviously we were aware that discussions were taking place. The whole package has a very strong case, but even so this was great news and unusual in the current climate. This is a big win for rail and a big win for the North.”

Striking the right chord

The Ordsall Chord is due for completion by the December 2016 timetable change, two years in advance of the other Northern Hub works. There are good reasons for accelerating this work, not least that it gives a definitive indication of the overall strategy for rail in the North.

In addition, it ties in with other projects taking place in the current Control Period. The chord lies within the triangle of electrification works from Preston and Liverpool to Manchester which are also due by 2016. The Victoria Station refurbishment is planned for completion by winter 2014. The £20 million works to its roof and concourse can therefore take into account the increase in passenger flows which are expected when services are switched to Victoria.

Consents are on the critical path for the Ordsall Chord. It will need a Development Consent Order from the newly-formed Infrastructure Planning Commission, says Hogley. The construction programme requires the necessary approvals to be in place by spring 2014. Therefore, the GRIP 4 stage preliminary designs of the principal disciplines for this project – track, civils and signalling – need to be complete by late 2012, she asserts.

The chord’s length is a few hundred metres. However, it will be entirely elevated and new structures will be needed to cross the River Irwell and Manchester’s inner ring road. Completed in 2004, the alignment of the ring road allowed for a 1.5m construction depth for the future rail bridge.

Onwards and hubwards

Achieving the full benefit from the chord requires many other works too. In particular, capacity between the Ordsall Chord and Piccadilly needs to be improved. The pinch-point is platforms 13 and 14 at Piccadilly which have a four-minute planning headway due to the station dwell time. New island platforms 15 and 16 are proposed to give two platforms in each direction.

This requires a complex highly-skewed bridge over Fairfield Street, but would increase throughput in each direction from 12 to 16 trains per hour. Critically this could double the number of freight paths to the container terminal at Trafford Park, the North West’s most important rail freight interchange, and satisfying another important strand in The Northern Way’s objectives.

Additional platforms will be needed at other stations too. New west-facing bays are proposed for Victoria to free up the through platforms. Rochdale needs a Manchester-facing bay to improve commuter services. A fourth platform is proposed for Manchester Airport for additional and longer trains – provision for this is being built into the Metrolink tram line currently under construction to the airport.

Attention is needed on the radial routes to deliver an increased level of service. Towards Sheffield, the target is four fast trains per hour rather than the current two. Loops along the Hope Valley Line at Chinley and Grindleford and doubling of the single-line junction at Dore are needed to allow stopping trains to be overtaken.

Six fast trains an hour to Leeds are planned, two more than at present. There is one suitable straight and level section of route for the necessary loops – this proposal could see the reopening of the two disused bores of Standedge Tunnel.

The Northern Hub aims to meet the demands of predicted 40-55% growth in rail travel by 2020. If these figures seem extreme, the measured growth rate over the last decade was 82%. So the question is not ‘can we afford to do something’? Rather, the evidence presented by The Northern Way is that we can ill-afford to do nothing. It promises to be an exciting time ahead for the North.