Prime minister Boris Johnson has set himself the first test of his transport agenda, pledging to have a deal between local and central government for a new rail line between Manchester and Leeds ready by Autumn.
The plans are expected to be for an entirely new high speed that would be separate from Network Rail’s £3bn trans-Pennine route upgrade.
The statutory sub-national transport body for the region, Transport for the North, has already developed a strategic outline business case for its wider £39bn plans for Northern Powerhouse Rail, which proposed a new line from Manchester to Leeds via Bradford as part of a series of upgrades to the regional network, .
TfN's Northern Powerhouse Rail plans
The Government has already allocated at least around £100m of development funding for the project so the programme may seem a good bet for Mr Johnson to secure an early win; however a deal by autumn in the context of Brexit might still be a big ask if it is to represent any more than a general funding commitment.
In 2016, the Government provided £60m of funding to develop Northern Powerhouse Rail to assess the economic benefits and engineering feasibility and a further £37m of funding was announced at Budget 2018.
However by early this year TfN was still to submit its outline busines case to government.
In a signal of intent over the importance of transport, infrastructure and devolution, Mr Johnson gave the commitment in a speech in Manchester over the weekend, in which he pledged support for this new line, as well as making a range of other promises centred on boosting local connectivity.
'I want to be the Prime Minister who does with Northern Powerhouse Rail what we did for Crossrail in London. And today I am going to deliver on my commitment to that vision with a pledge to fund the Leeds to Manchester route.
'I want to stress it will be up to local people to decide what comes next, as far as I’m concerned that’s just the beginning of our commitment and our investment. We want to see this whole thing run. I have tasked officials to accelerate their work on these plans so that we are ready to do a deal in the autumn.'
In customary style, the PM's comments were not exactly gaffe-free, as the Crossrail project in London is currently mired in controversy, delays and multi-billion cost increases.
The Northern Powerhouse Rail proposals have been discussed for some time and date back to former chancellor George Osborne's original Northern Powerhouse plans.
Various aspects of the concept have been dubbed Crossrail for the North, HS3, Northern Rail and Northern Powerhouse Rail over the years. A price tag of some £39bn has been attached to the overall investment programme.
Barry White, chief executive at TfN, said: 'Just days into his premiership, Boris Johnson is here in the North promising to invest in our creaking infrastructure. Not just the Manchester to Leeds line, but a whole network from Liverpool to Hull, and from Sheffield up to Newcastle, connecting the towns and cities in between.
'As Transport for the North, we’ll work with the new Government to make that a reality as quickly as we can. Any agreement later this year must include funding commitments for work on the whole network, including new lines and significant upgrades, and it must be made jointly with the North, as Boris Johnson promised.
'Following decades of underinvestment, our plans are bold, ambitious, and would deliver a radical rail network for our towns and cities.
'With the Prime Minister committing to power up the North and rebalance the economy - investment in Northern Powerhouse Rail as well as a raft of local improvements as part of an infrastructure pipeline must now come forward.'
The PM has so far made transport and infrastructure a major plank of his much-trumpeted spending programme, designed to bring confidence to a nation worn down by Brexit fatigue.
Buses and towns
As well as major projects Mr Johnson also emphasised the importance of connections within cities - 'that means buses', he said, before pledging support for Manchester's attempts to bring in London style franchising to its network - allowed under the Bus Services Act.
'I will begin as a matter of urgency the transformation of local bus services – starting here today in Manchester. I will work with the mayor of Greater Manchester on his plans to deliver a London style bus system in the area under powers we gave to him - you Andy - in the Bus Services Act.
'I want higher frequency, low-emission or zero-emission buses, more bus priority corridors, a network that’s easier to understand and use.
'I want local partnerships between the private sector, which operates the buses, and a public body, which co-ordinates them.'
He also announced a £3.6bn Towns Fund supporting an initial 100 towns - 'so that they will get the improved transport and improved broadband connectivity that they need'.