Interview | Transpennine Route Upgrade boss Neil Holm on progress and future challenges

Historically the Transpennine Route Upgrade (TRU) has been the UK’s biggest infrastructure project that nobody had ever heard of, according to Network Rail TRU managing director Neil Holm.

“That’s changed a lot in the last year,” he adds pointing to the project’s inclusion in the government’s Integrated Rail Plan, published in November 2021.

The existing 122km long Transpennine rail route connects Manchester in the west with York in the east, via Huddersfield and Leeds. The route serves 23 stations and features nearly 10km of tunnels as well as 285 bridges and viaducts.

Before the pandemic the route carried 137M passengers per year, but just 38% of its trains were on time in 2019 and inadequate infrastructure was blamed as the primary cause of disruption.

Long planning process

The route upgrade has been more than a decade in planning. After several false starts the project was given renewed impetus in the Integrated Rail Plan, with £2bn of funding released and a revised scope agreed. The rescoped TRU programme is Network Rail’s largest ever upgrade scheme. It includes the electrification of the entire route, digital signalling, platform enhancements and additional track in some sections to increase capacity and journey reliability.

The revised programme is expected to be complete between 2036 and 2041 at a cost of between £9bn and £11.5bn.

“The TRU, not uncommonly with other big programmes, has had an extremely difficult birth,” Holm says. “The core scope has now been agreed [and] we’re in reasonably good shape […] we’ve got a solid footing to work from, which we haven’t historically had.”

The upgrade is broken down into eight core projects – four west of Leeds and four to the east – plus four facilitation projects for Northern Powerhouse Rail (see box below).

Construction has begun on three of the eight projects. Work already carried out includes the installation of 60km of overhead electric cable between Church Fenton and Colton Junction near York.

It also includes track upgrades through Leeds, Batley, Morley and Wakefield Kirkgate, signalling upgrades and a new footbridge at Castleford station.

Track upgrades have already been carried out through Leeds, Batley, Morley and Wakefield Kirkgate

Work will continue apace in the coming year. In March there will be a 26 day line closure at Stalybridge while engineers remodel 2km of track on the approach to the station, install 23 signals, upgrade 13 crossovers and install overhead line equipment. In June, a nine day closure will facilitate track remodelling at Dewsbury. Weekend track upgrades at Huddersfield will take place between July and October.

Holm explains that the biggest project over the next 12 months will be the creation of three diversionary routes to ensure that services continue to operate along the full length of the route while work is carried out.

“[The diversions are] hugely important to the entire programme,” Holm explains. “We did a lot of customer surveys at the start of this and customers told us [that they] were ok with the train taking a bit longer, but [they] don’t want to have to get on to multiple trains and don’t want to have to get on a train, then a bus etcetera.”

The upgrade is being designed and delivered by two alliances. The TRU East Alliance – comprising Volker Rail, Murphy, Siemens and Network Rail – is responsible for work between Leeds and York. The TRU West Alliance – comprising Arup, Amey Rail, Bam Nuttall and Network Rail – is responsible for work between Leeds and Manchester. Jacobs is design partner on the client side.

We’ve got a solid footing to work from, which we haven’t historically had

Holm adds that some work will have to be contracted outside the alliances. For example, Network Rail is separately tendering for the route-wide installation of digital signalling. But Holm explains that most contract opportunities in the next two years will be for tier two and tier three contractors.

“There’s certainly a huge amount of opportunity for tier two and three contractors,” he adds. “However, I would also say there’s an opportunity for tier one partnering as well, as there’s a lot of work about.

“With any additional contractors we are pushing the [importance of] innovation really hard. We also have reasonably tough targets on our supply chain around local employment.”

Contract opportunities likely to come to market in the next 12 months include blasting, spoil removal, groundworks and foundation piling as well as station painting.

Holm adds that the “biggest civil engineering challenge” will be tackled in 2024 when upgrades are carried out between Huddersfield and the Westtown area of Dewsbury.

These involve doubling the number of tracks from two to four along most of the 14km stretch; upgrading stations at Huddersfield, Deighton and Mirfield and building a new station at Ravensthorpe.

Work also involves building a congestion-busting flyover near Ravensthorpe to separate the lines running to Wakefield from those running into Leeds.

All of the eight core programmes that make up the core TRU are scheduled to be complete in the early 2030s, with the NPR facilitation work due to finish in the late 2030s or early 2040s.

All being well, Holm hopes that completion of the TRU will provide the “perfect handover” to the Northern Powerhouse Rail team to continue the North’s rail revamp.

Paving the way for Northern Powerhouse Rail

The rescoped TRU programme will facilitate future construction of the Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) scheme which is designed to provide regular services between Newcastle, Sheffield, Hull, Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool.

Four projects have been “imported” from the NPR scheme and will be carried out by the TRU delivery teams. These include three multi-tracking projects and an additional digital signalling project which was part of the original NPR design.

The multi-tracking projects include adding a third track between Marsden and Huddersfield to enable delivery of future NPR services and to increase freight capacity.

Track upgrades will also be delivered east and west of Leeds, although these options are still being developed.

“The reason we did that was to ensure we don’t dig up the railway twice,” Holm says. “We don’t want to do our project and come back again in 10 years and dig it up again.”

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