Integrated Rail Plan: With cuts to HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail, travelling public have cause to feel let down over government’s new rail plan
From leaves on the line to the wrong kind of snow, rail travellers are used to creative excuses.
Today, Boris Johnson and Grant Shapps asked the travelling public of the North and the Midlands to swallow another.
A long-promised plan for new high-speed lines linking Birmingham, Leeds, and Manchester has been abandoned, they said, because it’s outdated, too slow to deliver, and too expensive.
All good reasons, you might think, had the same prime minister and transport secretary not repeatedly promised to deliver exactly those plans.
In February last year, Mr Johnson told the Commons of HS2: “This is about finally making a rapid connection from the West Midlands to the northern powerhouse to Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, and simultaneously permitting us to go forward with Northern Powerhouse Rail across the Pennines. And none of it makes sense without HS2.”
In July 2019, he was equally emphatic about the proposed new Leeds-Manchester route. “I want to be the prime minister who does with Northern Powerhouse Rail what we did for Crossrail in London,” he said.
On Thursday, he claimed to have delivered that promise, but only by rebranding what most understood Northern Powerhouse Rail to be, and redefining “high-speed” not as new track, but apparently any electrified route.
Instead of a new east-west line, the trans-Pennine route will be a patchwork of upgrades and electrification to the existing line, along with a section of new high-speed track east of Warrington.
Mr Shapps said the journey from Leeds-Manchester will take 33 minutes, 20 minutes faster than currently and only five minutes slower than the original plan.
But no new line also means Bradford’s 500,000 population, bypassed by these plans, will still live in the largest city in Britain not on a mainline railway.
The eastern leg of HS2 meanwhile will stop abruptly at East Midlands Parkway, improving journey times to London and Birmingham, but with trains reverting to existing track as far as Sheffield.
Trains will now run into Nottingham and Derby, with a new £3bn hub station development at nearby Toton abandoned, but Leeds is left hanging, with no clear plan as to how HS2 will reach its original destination.
On both counts, the travelling public have cause to feel misled. Northern newspapers and politicians on all sides have reacted furiously to what many see as a betrayal of the North.
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What may matter more in the long-term is whether the alternatives announced will come close to matching those original plans.
The government says they will, with journey times “similar” to the previous plans, more local stations connected to the high-speed network and improvements delivered a decade or so sooner.
Students of HS2 will note that many of these arguments were made by opponents of the route from London to Birmingham, only to be rejected by the same ministers.
And there is no concealing that cancelling the fast track to Leeds means significantly longer journeys to the North-East and Scotland.
But plans for a new high-speed network were never just about journey times. They were about increasing capacity (which ministers say will still double or treble, thought not how) and unlocking economic potential.
What excited northern political and business leaders was the prospect of a genuine high-speed network bringing the cities of the region closer, enabling millions more people to work in Leeds, Manchester or Liverpool irrespective of which side of the Pennines they lived, and generating a forecast £14bn of new economic benefits.
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They also saw the chance for equity with the south of England, where travelling from Reading to London takes half as long as from Leeds to Manchester, and twice as many people are able to practically commute more than 30km to work.
This new plan may yet prove to be the right one for the North and Midlands, and it will save £18bn, but it was not the one travellers were promised, and only time will tell if long-term benefits have been sacrificed for short-term cost-cutting.
Fortunately, commuters are used to waiting.