Connectivity Review calls for centrally managed multi-modal UK network

Dominic Browne

The Government should create a centrally managed multi-modal UK network based 'on a series of principal transport corridors', a major new review of the nation's transport has urged.

The Union Connectivity Review said that UKNET, as it would be called, 'will assess and map out for the first time' the key points across the United Kingdom that are essential to stronger, more direct transport connections.

The Rainbow Bridge over the A55 expressway, Old Colwyn, North Wales

Westminster invited the devolved nations to work together on 'the necessary improvements to union connectivity'; however the review was careful to note the 'key role of the UK Government' in directing UKNET. 

Schemes recommended by the review include:

  • Scotland: proposals include reducing rail journey times and increasing capacity on the West Coast Main Line, and conducting an assessment of the East Coast road and rail corridor
  • Northern Ireland: upgrading the key A75 link to improve freight and passenger connectivity
  • Wales: improvements on the A55, M53 and M56, the South Wales Corridor, improvements to the North Wales Coast Main Line and rail links to the Midlands from Cardiff

Led by Sir Peter Hendy, the chairman of Network Rail, the review was launched in October 2020 to undertake a detailed analysis of the quality and availability of transport infrastructure across the UK.

Prime minister Boris Johnson said: 'If we want to truly level up the country then it’s vital that we improve connectivity between all corners of the UK, making it easier for more people to get to more places more quickly.

'Sir Peter Hendy’s review is an inspiring vision for the future of transport, which we will now consider carefully. Determined to get to work right away, we will set up a strategic UK-wide transport network that can better serve the whole country with stronger sea, rail and road links – not only bringing us closer together but boosting jobs, prosperity and opportunity.'

Transport secretary Grant Shapps said: 'We will consider his recommendations carefully, engage closely with the devolved administrations, and work collegiately to ensure these proposals strengthen the ties that bind us, now and for the future.'

Connected contradictions

The timing of the publication, following the controversial Integrated Rail Plan, has raised questions over whether there are contradictory elements to the Government's wider transport strategy.

The review makes no mention of Great British Railways, the intended 'guiding mind' of the rail network that is being established in the wake of the Williams-Shapps plan.

Notably the report also says that the Government should 'to develop an assessment of the East Coast road and rail transport corridor from North East England to South East Scotland, including improvements on the East Coast Main Line and the A1'.

This comes after ministers announced they would cut short the Eastern leg of HS2 in the East Midlands rather than taking it up to Leeds. The original plan would have taken pressure off rail connections on the East Coast Mainline route from London to Leeds, York and up to Edinburgh. 

The review also found that  'devolution has been good for transport with many forward-thinking transport developments taking place regionally in the nations of the UK'.

'There is no doubt that regional authorities are best placed to understand the needs of local communities and deliver real change locally to improve people’s lives,' it states.

This comes just a week after the Department for Transport sidelined Transport for the North and stripped it of strategic powers. 

The review goes on to argue that there is a gap in UK-wide strategic transport planning that has hindered 'cross-border schemes and those where the costs and benefits are in different nations'.

It argues that the creation of UKNET would help tackle this and 'identified the key role of the UK Government in developing such a network' with collaboration from the devolved nations.

The new Green Book

Sir Peter Hendy notes that the revised benefit cost analysis in the Government's Green Book has put 'greater emphasis on developing the strategic case, assessing environmental impacts and capturing and presenting transformational change: all criteria which are very much appropriate to establishing the wider economic case for spending on better connectivity across the UK and levelling up'.

'Because the Union Connectivity Review is concerned with the broader economic and social factors, including levelling up and wider environmental considerations, it has, in line with the recent review of the Green Book, considered a range of criteria rather than taking a narrow benefit cost ratio approach.'

Key recommendations from the review:

  • design and implement UKNET – a strategic transport network for the whole of the UK, and commit to providing additional funding to improve the network, in particular, the parts that are not performing well
  • plan improvements to the network using multimodal corridors, which should be reviewed regularly and appraised on a wider economic basis in order to support government objectives such as levelling up and net zero
  • reduce rail journey times and increase rail capacity between Scotland and London, the Midlands and North West England by upgrading the West Coast Main Line north of Crewe and reviewing options for alternative northerly connections between HS2 and the West Coast Main Line
  • work with the Welsh Government to undertake a multimodal review of the North Wales transport corridor, and develop a package of improvements focused on the North Wales Main Line (including better connectivity with HS2, and electrification), the A55, the M53, M56, and onward travel to and from the island of Ireland
  • recognise the urgent need to reduce congestion on the M4 and adopt a multi modal approach to the South Wales corridor by upgrading and building new stations on the existing South Wales Main Line, supporting the Welsh Government’s package of public transport improvements and removing bottlenecks through targeted improvements at the junction of the M4/M5 to relieve congestion; and
  • develop a package of railway improvements to increase connectivity and reduce journey times between Cardiff, Birmingham and beyond, which could include better rolling stock, timetable changes and enhanced infrastructure
  • support the Northern Ireland Executive to develop, fund and implement a long term pipeline of improvements to transport infrastructure
  • offer funding to support the upgrade of the A75 to improve journeys between Northern Ireland and Great Britain
  • agree with the Northern Ireland Executive a plan and funding to upgrade the railway on the Northern Ireland corridor, including better connectivity to the three airports and seaports, and to and from Belfast and Derry/Londonderry, and examine the potential to reopen closed lines; and
  • support the development of sustainable aviation fuel plants in parts of the United Kingdom that are particularly reliant on aviation for domestic connectivity

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