Rail ‘betrayal’ for north and Midlands despite Boris Johnson levelling-up promises

Cities across the north and Midlands set for disappointment as Treasury cuts costs

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Saturday 09 October 2021 21:43 BST
Boris Johnson says there is 'no alternative' to inflation

The government is to offer the north and Midlands a cut-price “bare minimum” of railway upgrades despite Boris Johnson’s promise this week to “level up” the country outside London, The Independent understands.

Local transport chiefs now expect to receive a severely pared-back version of the Northern Powerhouse Rail scheme, and for ministers to effectively shelve plans for a high-speed cross-country link through the east Midlands.

The government has been drawing up plans for new connections outside London in consultation with local leaders – but insiders familiar with discussions now expect virtually every major city across the north and Midlands to be left disappointed.

“It will be bad news for Liverpool, Manchester and West Yorkshire. And not great for the northeast either,” one source said.

Opposition parties said people would “feel betrayed and left behind” by the government’s “inability to see projects through” and that Mr Johnson’s party conference promises had been exposed for “hollow” sloganeering.

To save money, Rishi Sunak’s Treasury is understood to have blocked demands for an ambitious underground through station in Manchester – an omission that will force trains running across the north to reverse at Piccadilly station, creating a capacity bottleneck for the whole line and adding to journey times.

The government is also expected to rule out including Bradford on the direct route of Northern Powerhouse Rail on cost grounds, despite the city having a population of more than half a million people and being situated between Manchester and Leeds.

Bradford, described by West Yorkshire mayor Tracy Brabin as the “greatest opportunity” for the new route, is an obvious candidate for levelling up of the sort trumpeted by Boris Johnson – the city is the fifth most income-deprived district in England.

And Liverpool, too, is expected to be let down on its demands for a short 20-mile section of high-speed line linking the city to HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail. A far more limited upgrade to the existing line is expected to be proposed instead, resulting in lower capacity and lower speeds than the fully funded alternative.

In the northeast the Treasury is understood to have resisted demands for improving the Leamside Line, an old freight route that planners want to use to run more passenger trains per hour on the mainline.

All the projects have been extolled by local leaders as important to boosting productivity and bringing infrastructure closer to the standard enjoyed in London and the southeast. Earlier this year Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham promised to fight cuts to the scheme, warning: “We are not going to accept second best, and we are not going to accept a situation where all the money is blown on HS2 in the south of the country, leaving us to make cuts in the north.”

The government is also expected to effectively shelve the eastern leg of High Speed 2, a cross-country route that runs between Birmingham and Leeds via the east Midlands and Sheffield.

While ministers are expected to resist definitively cancelling the eastern leg, they are expected to kick it into the long grass with no concrete completion date set under the guise of “phasing”. Electrification of the existing Midland Mainline, which was originally promised in 2013 and then partially cancelled, is expected to be offered as a more immediate alternative.

As well as limiting links between the Midlands and Yorkshire, the mothballing of the eastern leg will make it impossible to deliver the entire programme of local railway upgrades for the Midlands drawn up by local leaders, many of which relied on the line being built.

The announcements are due in the government’s Integrated Rail Plan, which is expected in the next two weeks, before Rishi Sunak’s autumn spending statement. Another source said: “Boris wants to build everything, but Treasury is putting the brakes on.”

The prime minister was widely expected to unveil details of the transport upgrades in his speech to Tory conference, but raised eyebrows when Northern Powerhouse Rail only got a passing mention. The project was first announced when George Osborne was chancellor but nearly half a decade later no concrete plans have been published.

Rail industry insiders believe Downing Street left the announcement out of Mr Johnson’s policy-light speech to avoid starting a row with northern leaders and undermining his levelling-up message while he was still in Manchester.

“This would have been the perfect opportunity for a positive announcement,” the source added. “No mention at all suggests the north is going to be unhappy.”

Jim McMahon, Labour’s shadow transport secretary, told The Independent: “The Conservatives’ endless jam tomorrow promises, reheated announcements and failure to deliver mean communities will rightly feel betrayed and left behind.

“Businesses won’t invest and our economic growth will be stalled unless poor transport connectivity issues are addressed – but the government’s incompetence and inability to see projects through is hindering that.”

Sarah Olney, the Liberal Democrats’ transport spokesperson, said that the “sad reality” was that “the government’s claim they will level up the north is nothing more than another hollow slogan”.

She added: “These infrastructure projects would bring jobs, investment and opportunities to people and communities across the north. Instead, they are now being scaled back whilst the south continues to see greater investment."

A spokesperson for the Department for Transport said: “The Integrated Rail Plan will soon outline exactly how major rail projects, including HS2 phase 2b and other transformational projects such as Northern Powerhouse Rail, will work together to deliver the reliable train services that passengers across the north and Midlands need and deserve.”

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