Boris Johnson facing backlash from Tory MPs as he unveils cuts to northern rail plan

Prime minister’s Integrated Rail Review has ditched plans for eastern HS2 leg

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
,Jon Sharman
Thursday 18 November 2021 09:11
Raab defends HS2 cuts and claims government 'delivering best bang for buck'

Boris Johnson is facing a furious backlash from northern Tory MPs after he broke his promise to build a new railway line for the north of England by scrapping the eastern leg of HS2 from Birmingham to Leeds.

Mr Johnson and transport secretary Grant Shapps are expected to unveil the government’s Integrated Rail Review on Thursday, billing it as “the biggest ever” public investment in the rail network with some £96bn going to the Midlands and northern England.

But despite promising a new line, the prime minister has now announced he will scale back the plans and green-light a cheaper series of piecemeal upgrades, following pressure from the Treasury to cut costs.

He made the admission in a column in the Yorkshire Post, claiming “high-speed rail is grindingly slow to build” and suggesting the HS2 plans were outdated. A new study will be commissioned to explore how the network can be expanded to Leeds later down the line, he said.

Northern transport bosses had previously called leaks of the plan “deeply worrying”, while rail experts said the cuts could leave trains in the region more overcrowded than ever. Northern Powerhouse Rail, a proposed “HS3” link between Manchester and Leeds, also appeared set for a downgrade.

Despite this, the Department for Transport insisted it would deliver postive change up to 10 years sooner than previous plans, adding in a statement that “the full HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail schemes as originally proposed would not enter service until the early to mid-2040s”.

Northern commuters are also set to benefit from London-style contactless ticketing including price caps integrated with tram and bus services, at a cost of about £360m.

The Independent understands that the landmark rail scheme was – unusually – still being worked on by officials on the eve of its unveiling, amid jitters in Whitehall that its contents could enrage MPs.

Mr Johnson’s decision came despite Northern Tory MPs demanding he stand by his pledges to the region. Shipley MP Philip Davies said dropping Northern Powerhouse Rail would “be a massive disappointment and a huge missed opportunity”.

And Jake Berry, the chair of the Northern Research Group, confronted Mr Johnson at PMQs on Wednesday by asking: “Were the voters in the north right to take the prime minister at his word?”

Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, has accused Mr Johnson of “pulling the whole damn rug from under our feet and ripping up the floor behind him”.

Martin Tugwell, chief executive of Transport for the North, told The Independent before the PM confirmed the rumoured changes: “It is deeply worrying because it means we won’t have the benefit of that comprehensive transformation of the rail network that will make all the difference to our region’s people and businesses.

“We currently have a Victorian, two-track railway carrying a lot of trains and we need to make this step-change now, to ensure we create a rail network fit for the future.

“That means investing in new lines and stations, as well as improving the existing ones. If all we are doing is a little bit of a tweak here and there, then it is probably going to be more disruptive and we will not get that transformational change.”

Mr Tugwell said the full Northern Powerhouse Rail plan had been developed “as a co-client with the government” and that it was “fundamental” to upgrading the region’s transport network and economy.

Rail experts backed up the warnings and said cuts imposed by the Treasury could leave the region’s transport network crippled and more overcrowded than ever.

Gareth Dennis, a rail engineer and writer, told The Independent: “Whilst government seems to be trying to suggest that upgrades to the existing network will provide almost the same benefits, it cannot be overstated how incorrect this is.

“High-speed segregation, where fast trains are put on their own new tracks to free up capacity for more useful local, regional and freight services, is not something that can be delivered partially. It’s all or nothing.

“Running faster trains on the existing network will actually result in a railway that can carry fewer passengers and less freight than it can today.”

William Barter, an independent consultant in rail operations and planning and fellow of the Chartered Institution of Railway Operators, meanwhile warned that cutting corners on HS2 could store up costs and capacity issues for later, which would be “expensive to resolve”.

He told The Independent that failing to deliver small but important parts of the scheme, such as a link to the west coast mainline at Golborne and to the east coast mainline south of York, could leave services “crippled”, with journeys becoming “slow and complex”.

The cuts are expected to fall most heavily on schemes serving the north of England, with the Midlands given more of what it asked for – including potentially the Midland Hub plan to improve local services around Birmingham.

In comments briefed out ahead of Thursday’s launch, the prime minister said: “If we are to see levelling up in action now, we must rapidly transform the services that matter to people most.

“That’s why the Integrated Rail Plan will be the biggest transport investment programme in a century, delivering meaningful transport connections for more passengers across the country, more quickly – with both high-speed journeys and better local services, it will ensure no town or city is left behind.”

The transport secretary added that “previous plans for rail schemes drawn up a decade ago ... no longer fit the way we travel today”.

Mr Shapps added: “Our plan will deliver a network that is fit for passengers today and for future generations – a network that works for every community and every passenger, right across the UK.”

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