One of the Standedge Tunnels deep under the Pennines. Image: Beardedreality

Northern Powerhouse Fail

Centuries-old tunnels below the Pennines reveal the glory of a previous rail revolution. Now we need another  
June 14, 2023

This is a parable, one about what we have been getting wrong with infrastructure in Britain and how this has come to feed political resentment between north and south. It tells of the gap between politicians’ grandiose fantasies and citizens’ grim experience of daily travel. Of how promises hit reality and everything ends up in a heap.

The story starts in a place, the south Pennines, formed of Millstone Grit—the rock, about 300m years old, that creates the range’s character. These are practical, working hills in an intermediate land, pressed between cities on either side. They are only semi-wild, punctuated by towns and isolated settlements. Fractured stone walls and fields of sheep run up to terraces of houses. This is a place divided by accent—Lancashire to the west and Yorkshire to the east—and by climate, too. Settlements on the eastern side of the Pennines, further from the Atlantic, get far less rainfall than those on the western.

Some towns here have grandeur. Halifax’s pillared Piece Hall is one of the most impressive and least-known civic Georgian buildings in Britain; the facade of Huddersfield station outdoes that of most stately homes. Elsewhere, there are small settlements trying to find a future after the collapse of old industries. There is money about—its presence felt in artfully lit organic bakeries and stone cottages with gravel drives and electric gates. There’s poverty, too: discount stores mix with old working men’s clubs.

Better transport might spread wealth from the cities. It would certainly help business within and between them. But, the M62 aside, almost everything people travel on through the Pennines was built in the 19th century. The twisting roads are too narrow for the traffic that races along them. Rail lines snake inefficiently through valleys towards long tunnels under the hilltops.

Compared to the rest of the world, this part of the Pennines should pose no obstacle to easy travel. Belgium boasts higher summits. Yet although Leeds and Manchester are 36 miles apart as the crow flies—less than the length of the London Underground’s Central line—setting off from one city to the other feels like an expedition.

The struggles of the TransPennine Express rail operator have become a byword for misery, with daily lists of services that will not run because of a lack of drivers, investment or willpower. In the first two months of 2023 it cancelled almost one in four of its trains. “Without action people will lose jobs, youngsters will fail exams and the northern economy will go off the rails,” West Yorkshire’s new mayor, Tracy Brabin, has complained.

In May, ministers announced that the operator would be nationalised, but that will do nothing to solve its toxic relationship with train drivers and their union which lies behind the dismal service—let alone build trust in a long-term plan.

The irony is that since this route was equipped with smart new hybrid electric trains the service has only got worse. When trains do run, the twisting and constrained tracks force them to crawl along at a fraction of their potential speed. Services between Leeds and Manchester often average around 30mph, and the fastest only just pass 40mph. Trains from each city to London run at twice the pace.

The trip is no easier by car. The M62 cuts across high moors, sometimes made impassable by snow. The old road from Manchester to Leeds, the A62, climbs up west of Marsden on the route of an 18th-century turnpike, passing places with names that tell of the perils of past travel, such as Thieves Clough and Foul Moss.

Far beneath this spot, four remarkable tunnels cut their way three miles through what geologists call the Hebden Formation—coarse-grained pebbly sandstone interlaced with patches of mudstone, siltstone and shales.

This is the epicentre of the centuries-old challenge of finding a swift and easy way to cross the Pennines. Which is why I decided to go there on a wet day in early spring, with permission to walk into the heart of the Standedge Tunnels. I was escorted by Network Rail engineers, who are trying to work out how to adapt these dripping monuments to the demands of future travel between the cities of the much-hyped “Northern Powerhouse”.

The first of the tunnels carries a canal. It was finished in 1811 by the engineer Thomas Telford—a hero of mine—and is a black, elongated, soaking cavern without a towpath, so that the boats had to be pushed through by men lying on their backs on top of the boat, walking with their feet on its walls.

The other three Standedge tunnels were built for trains. Tracks in two of them were ripped up in the 1960s, when most doubted whether rail had a future. Today, this disused pair serve as rough and narrow roadways for engineering vehicles. Their headlights illuminate ghostly reminders of the past, such as a tiny shelter cut into the rock. Its wooden bench (now rotten) and iron stove must have been small comfort for the men who spent their lives keeping the line open.

Engineers are out on the track in the dark, drilling giant bolts into the soot-covered tunnel walls

The third rail tunnel is the only one still in use, on the main Manchester-to-Leeds line. It is at the limit of its capacity and central to the debate about what should be done to fix travel through the Pennines. While politicians squabble, engineers are out on the track in the dark, drilling giant bolts into the soot-covered tunnel walls to stop the brick lining bulging and cracking.

Halfway through the labyrinth of interconnected passages under Standedge, at a point where you can see pinpricks of daylight a mile and a half away at each end, there’s a spot nicknamed “the cathedral”. It opens upwards with elegant, stepped iron vaulting. To stand here, deep under rock, after splashing through puddles and ducking through low passageways, is to confront the difference between hollow promises to transform travel in the north and the immense amounts of hard work and creativity that go into building something truly useful.

With water pouring onto my head through access shafts from the moor above, I thought back to a meeting I attended a decade ago. It took place at 10 Downing Street, ahead of a prime ministerial visit to the north. As a transport adviser, I had been asked for a spectacular project to announce, and the idea of a shiny new rail link was gaining support in the room. I got out my phone and switched to the satellite view in Google Maps to show that it would not be so straightforward. What, asked a senior colleague, was that big green area he could see on the screen? That, I explained, was the Pennines.

In seeming to doubt what could be done in a single announcement, I appeared obstructive, since even those who could point to the region on a map knew nothing of the reality of the place—of the damp and dark of the Standedge Tunnels. Why should they? Regular passengers through the gloom must only think about the tunnels occasionally.

But solving the transport problem is difficult. As the world’s first modern industrial country, Britain has some of the oldest road and rail links anywhere. Catching up with the need for investment, politicians are racing to promise thrilling new initiatives. In the rush, politics has become disconnected from any understanding of the places such things affect, how they will be paid for or designed, and the compelling reasons that nobody has done them already. As a result, our leaders end up floundering between hyperbole and inaction.

Safety first: a worker from the Canal & River Trust inspects a tunnel at Standedge. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo Safety first: a worker from the Canal & River Trust inspects a tunnel at Standedge. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

So we are told that London is to get a new airport in the sea, or a new runway amid dense population. The news is that there could be a tunnel under Stonehenge and maybe another between Scotland and Northern Ireland. And then there’s a delay or the idea is abandoned altogether. Nothing happens for decades and then there’s a lurch into extravagant overpromises.

Time after time, these exciting projects turn out to be impossible and are never started. Or they end up taking so long and costing so much that the benefits are lost in a welter of downsides. Media and political interest focuses on the—seemingly important, but in reality minor—issue of whether rail operators are taken into public ownership, when in fact even nominally private franchises now effectively run under ministerial direction (control having been ceded in return for Covid-related bailouts). The issues that matter are different—and less discussed.

We need to get better at working out what is actually needed and what is practicable. And then we need to carry out the job carefully and determinedly, at a steady pace over many years, so the end result is both affordable and useful. This is not exciting work, but it is necessary, and can make the difference between a project like HS2, where ambition has run ahead of feet-on-the-ground design, and the Elizabeth line in London, only funded after decades of careful planning.

Talk to anyone involved in mega projects like these and they will tell you that the thing that matters most is sticking to the plan once you have made it. “Messing around with these projects is very expensive, so the best thing is just to get it done,” said Neil Holm, head of Network Rail’s prosaically named Transpennine Route Upgrade, when I stood with him by the entrance to the Standedge Tunnels. But that’s a lesson it seems hard to learn. As a recent National Audit Office report concluded, “The Transpennine Route Upgrade Programme has had a difficult start, with the [transport] department taking more than a decade to agree a scope. As a result, passengers will have to deal with delays and overcrowding on a route that is at full capacity for longer.” None of this will be solved by the folding of the operator into state hands.

So what is actually happening across the Pennines? It’s a mess. Different politicians have made different pledges about different city centres; new lines have been announced, cancelled and re-announced; some lines might be built from scratch while others are being upgraded; no one is sure what role HS2 will eventually play in the network.

Bradford, Sheffield, Liverpool and Newcastle have appeared in various announcements, but the centrepiece of “Northern Powerhouse Rail” (NPR)—the name usually given to this programme of investment in the region—is a new Leeds-to-Manchester line.

The 2021 Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) saw the Johnson government make many changes to proposed northern investment. Andy Burnham, Greater Manchester’s football-mad mayor, called the new strategy a “Championship” rather than a “Premier League” option.

But in retaining at least parts of the planned Leeds-to-Manchester line, it raised the question of whether the four old tunnels under the Pennines could be joined by a fifth—a proposal backed by Henri Murison, chief executive of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, a thinktank that links business and government. “The government has committed to dig a new tunnel or go over the top of the hills,” he says.

That is some commitment. But is it credible? A Treasury stung by the cost of a delayed and overbudget HS2 is surely not in the mood to sign another blank cheque. Political churn risks leaving projects stranded: there have been two changes of prime minister since the IRP was published. In theory, a future Labour government would continue with a similar scheme—the shadow transport secretary has issued a “pledge” that a new high-speed transpennine line and much else will be built in full. But could it find the money? More likely it would keep talking, but not start building.

And so uncertainty reigns. In the meantime, engineers are getting on with an expensive but solid and achievable idea: fixing the existing route with an emphasis on more tracks, electric power and faster travel speeds, rather than blasting a new line through the Pennines past Standedge.

This is an element of the Transpennine Route Upgrade (TRU), itself part of the IRP, that “we should get on and do,” says Patrick McLoughlin, now chair of Transport for the North, the official body charged with banging heads together to create a plan. “Of course I’d love to see a high-speed line,” he adds. “Look at what the Elizabeth line has done for London—what’s so mad about saying this is what we need in the north? But we have to be realistic.”

This upgrade will take at least a decade. The bill might pass £10bn, more than half the cost of building the Elizabeth line. And still the full plans haven’t been settled.

All this indecision is absurd. It is like trying to fit a new kitchen to a house before you have designed the foundations. Extraordinarily, despite the TRU project’s scale, there had been official reluctance to tell people about the plan until recently, because to do so might be to admit that the competing idea of a new high-speed line through the Pennines is not going to happen.

A few days before I went to Standedge, I went out to touch the reality of the TRU by meeting engineers at Morley, just to the west of Leeds, where an old station is being moved to a new site opening this summer. They were proud of their project, which has gone well. It is, they hope, the first step in modernising almost every station on the line, putting in extra tracks so that fast trains can overtake slow ones, and fitting electric wires overhead.

When (or if) the upgrade is done—which won’t be any earlier than the mid-2030s—there will be six fast and two stopping services each hour on the tracks from Leeds to Manchester. The fastest journey times between the two cities will fall by perhaps 20 per cent. Work includes modernising the Standedge Tunnels (Murison says this is a mistake: “Messing around with old Victorian tunnels is a bad idea and you should absolutely avoid it at any cost,” he says). Upgrades to the network will also create more room for electric freight trains carrying full-sized containers from major ports, currently almost impossible to fit on tracks across the Pennines.

But there’s no knowing whether the whole thing will happen, or if TRU will have to be redesigned when a future government comes up with a new plan. There are also tough choices ahead about how capacity should be allocated: choices that the fragmented railway isn’t set up to handle. Should faster express services between cities come at the expense of slow stopping trains that are more useful to people who live in smaller towns across the south Pennines? Engineers at Morley are lengthening the platforms and installing power wires with no idea what kind of trains might be bought to use them. Decisions are being made in isolation. Vital rail reform to create a more logical management structure has stalled.

On top of that, the money may not be there. Rail revenues have dropped sharply since the coronavirus pandemic. Network Rail’s investment budgets have been cut. Crucial schemes in the south of England have already been dropped or watered down—such as the modernisation of the packed line from London to Brighton (a journey that is no faster than the Pennine link, but which no one is promising to spend tens of billions fixing). The north of England has been protected because that’s what politicians want, but for how much longer?

“The cathedral”: we can learn from the creativity of its builders. Image: courtesy Daniel Whittaker at Network Rail “The cathedral”: we can learn from the creativity of its builders. Image: courtesy Daniel Whittaker at Network Rail

And as long as people still hold out for something bolder, even a £10bn upgrade can feel like a let-down. The bidding war will resume as the 2024 election gets closer. Who wants to be the party leader to tell northern voters they can’t have fast, shiny and spectacular rail links?

IRP, TRU, NPR, HS2, HS3… these have become tokens in a political game. As Murison admits, “you lose any sense it is connected to reality”. Meanwhile, on the ground, choices must be made that affect the way millions of people will live and work in the future. Transport planning is treated by the media and Westminster as a niche issue, not one worthy of public debate like health or education. But the consequences for all our lives are massive.

No politician’s promise will mean much to passengers facing today’s reality: a service governed by what TransPennine Express calls “short-notice cancellations or service amendments made on a day-to-day basis”. The operator says it is training more staff. But on the afternoon this article was finished the 13.24, the 14.24 and the 14.54 services from Liverpool heading east across the Pennines were all cancelled. The government has sacked the operator in the hope that doing so looks like action, but more fundamental issues remain unresolved.

It is easy to promise a wonderful future. But—just as at Standedge—the light at the end of the tunnel is a long way off.