May 31 2016

Transport for the Northern Powerhouse: can we support the idea?

The Northern Powerhouse concept is gaining momentum, and at February’s UK Northern Powerhouse Conference & International Exhibition a 10-point plan was released, demanding bolder reform from Government to turn the Northern Powerhouse rhetoric into reality.

The scheme will link the northern cities of Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Liverpool, Hull and Newcastle – creating an economic force to rival London and the South East.

Not only does the idea call for the cooperation of these significantly different cities, each with their own identities miles apart from one another, but it will also mean bridging the physical distance between them.

Much has been made of the need to factor in an effective system of transport for the Northern Powerhouse and this major infrastructure project will undoubtedly see the expansion of railways and creation of highway jobs to oversee work on the roads connecting these key urban areas.

Road recruitment

Almost a year ago, Chancellor George Osborne announced the concept claiming that it would become “a collection of northern cities sufficiently close to each other that combined they can take on the world.”

Addressing the UK’s North-South imbalance economically is crucial, and where London and the surrounding cities’ success anchors on the financial services they offer, the North will be driven by a strong track record in sectors such as manufacturing, technology, science and service.

Even with its industrial prowess, however, implementing vital transport for the Northern Powerhouse remains an infrastructural minefield – with some important solutions still to be discussed - and yet transport is a significant factor in delivering this much-needed economic boost to the region.

Why transport is important for the Northern Powerhouse

While there are many contributors to realising the final scheme, transport for the Northern Powerhouse remains crucial because reducing the time it takes to travel between the key urban areas is the first step towards connecting the cities in other aspects.

Where distance no longer prohibits collaboration, the plan can start to deliver the growth necessary to rejuvenating the region and making it a strong economic area in competition with the South. Naturally paving the way for transport links comes with its challenges as explained by UK Northern Powerhouse, the network bringing together organisations with assets or an interest in the region to develop co-operative alliances:

“The North continues to suffer from five decades of underinvestment in transport infrastructure and greater engagement with the Government is required to ensure the business case for public funding is better understood, given competing demands. If the economy is to benefit, transport improvements must be balanced with a corresponding commitment to technical infrastructure.”  

UK Northern Powerhouse put forward the opinions of over 2,000 business leaders in the report released at February’s conference, Building the Northern Powerhouse: Next steps for the transformation , including its 10-point plan of recommendations for the project.

It calls for “responsibility of the Northern rail network to be transferred to Transport for the North to ensure investment in the regional rail infrastructure remains a top priority for public investment in order to address the problems of capacity due to half-of a century of under investment.”

It also demands improved engagement with the region’s corporate transport infrastructure users and providers and among other ideas, encourages balancing investment in highway infrastructure with introducing tactical incentives to road users to promote better use of the existing road space.

Transport for the North has been established as a partnership between the Northern authorities, local enterprise partnerships, Government and the national transport agencies including Highways England, Network Rail and High Speed 2 (HS2). The transport body is tasked with developing a long-term strategy for the infrastructure around transport for the Northern Powerhouse with the ultimate goal of economic growth in the North of England.

Transport for the North says: “The most important thing is that the Northern Transport Strategy is truly multi-modal and prioritised. We know that we can’t make all the improvements we’d like to overnight, but if we can develop a prioritised, costed strategy that is pan-regional in its outlook but links with local infrastructure we will have a sound base going forward.”

M18 road

Road and rail transport for the Northern Powerhouse

Central to the Northern Powerhouse concept is improving transport links between the region’s major cities, allowing them to combine as one major economy rather than competing against one another. The actual distance between them poses a problem, however.

The first goal is to reduce commuting time between the cities, making it easier for people to find employment beyond their nearest town or city and aiding knowledge transfer and productivity across the North. The hope is that shorter travel-to-work times will encourage highly skilled workers to take their experience further afield without necessarily having to move residence.

Journey time between Manchester and Leeds, for example, could be reduced from an hour and a half to just 50 minutes as plans for a similar high-speed rail to HS2 are suggested. HS3 would be a significant undertaking for engineers working on the track, but this proposed fast rail connection through the Pennines would provide exceptional public transport for the Northern Powerhouse. As it stands, current tracks would not be able to cater to the demand that this project is expected to create and so building new routes appears to be the best option. Of course, a secondary consideration is the impact of public transport on the culture of a city.

Commuters opting for the road could also see their journey improved but before planning new roads into the project, the commission responsible for the Northern Powerhouse is exploring how roads such as the M62 and M60 can be transformed into smart motorways.

These smart motorways utilise technology to monitor traffic conditions and provide relevant information to drivers such as speed limits and when they could use the hard shoulder. Highways England has announced plans to start work on seven new smart motorways before 2020 and this system is expected to make roads safer, increase capacity while easing congestion and reduce journey times.

Roads also play a vital role in increasing opportunities for transporting goods and as the North becomes an important region for sectors such as manufacturing, the need to improve transport links for freight will likewise grow.

The project is innovative in itself, but transport for the Northern Powerhouse could also see another engineering feat realised – the construction of a road tunnel from Manchester to Sheffield running under the Peak District National Park. Estimated to stretch more than 30 miles, this tunnel would be one of the longest in the world and could remain open during bad weather conditions. Needless to say, the construction of Europe’s longest tunnel will rely on effective recruitment and an experienced workforce.

Of course, a secondary consideration is the impact of new transport models on the culture of a city. In London, for example, introducing congestion charges increased foot traffic on the pavements and encouraged more residents to take up cycling. This is no bad thing, but still an important factor to deliberate when determining how transport will shape the Northern Powerhouse of tomorrow. Greater road access could also create business opportunities with out-of-town developments springing up to cater to those on long journeys or living on the outskirts of cities.

High speed train

How improved transport links in the North support the economy

“Transport links are only part of the Northern Powerhouse, but they are an important part. Research has shown that if we can achieve agglomeration of the North’s economic assets its economy will be much more than the sum of its parts. Ensuring that there are rapid, reliable and convenient transport options across the whole region plays a really important role in this,” explains Transport for the North.

The Northern Powerhouse is expected to establish the region as an economic power in the UK, supporting several sectors and attracting skills to its cities’ workforces. Transport for the Northern powerhouse will also be integral in opening the North to better business prospects and a UK Northern Powerhouse report reveals that polling by Ipsos MORI at February’s conference demonstrates this point, with many prioritising the new transport links: “Amongst businesses who were surveyed, there was almost unanimous agreement (99%) for investment in transport across the North.

The potential for the North, when combined as an urban area is significant - a belt of cities and towns containing over ten million people – more than the conurbations of New York or London.”

Infrastructure is clearly hugely important to aiding the Northern Powerhouse and ensuring the region reaches its full economic potential. Investment in transport is pivotal to this and the establishment of Transport for the North is a clear indication that the Government and National Infrastructure Commission recognise this. Beyond funding, building the roads and railways needed to support the Northern Powerhouse will rest on the skills and ability of the workforce tasked with delivering a transport system to connect and strengthen the region.

Image Credit: Andrew Loughran (, Joshua Veitch-Michaelis (

To see the recruitment options in the highways sector for yourself, please visit the highways jobs page.

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