<p>Buffer state: Liverpool Lime Street, 40 minutes or less by rail from Manchester (file photo)</p>

Buffer state: Liverpool Lime Street, 40 minutes or less by rail from Manchester (file photo)

Why can’t the transport secretary just be honest about HS2?

The Man Who Pays His Way: Justifying that most awkward and painful of manoeuvres, a railway U-turn, is an unenviable task

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Friday 19 November 2021 19:01

Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key travel issue – and what it means for you.

Pity Grant Shapps, obliged to travel across the country and the airwaves presenting a downgraded rail plan as a huge success.

On Thursday evening, the transport secretary travelled from London Euston to Manchester on an Avanti West Coast train. By Friday morning Mr Shapps was telling anyone who would listen – from Sky News at 7am to Times Radio at 9am – that the trip from the capital would soon be almost an hour faster thanks to High Speed 2.

But Leeds – coincidentally 185 rail miles from London, the same as Manchester – will not benefit. Rather than continuing to Sheffield and Leeds, as promised by the transport secretary six months ago, HS2’s eastern leg will end at that bleakest of locations, East Midlands Parkway.

Weirdly, passengers from London who wish to go to Leeds once HS2’s western leg is completed will be routed via Manchester, where their train will reverse before travelling for an extra 50 miles west to Leeds.

The first 18 miles of that trans-Pennines line will be on new tracks with speeds of up to 225mph. But once first contact is made with Yorkshire the trains will revert to existing tracks. The plan to invite the great but neglected city of Bradford to the high-speed party has been ditched.

Over the decades, governments of different shades simultaneously poured billions of taxpayers’ pounds into the UK’s overstretched rail system while failing to offer any coherent vision of future improvement.

The final gasps of the last Labour administration aimed to reverse this malaise with HS2: the Y-shaped solution to at least some of the nation’s rail capacity crunches.

To their credit, the coalition and then successive Conservative governments backed the scheme – with the current prime minister raising the rail stakes by promising an additional high-speed line from Manchester to Leeds as part of a “Crossrail of the north”.

As we all know, large parts of those plans and promises have been torn up.

Having to justify that most awkward and painful of manoeuvres, a railway U-turn, is an unenviable task. But Mr Shapps came out swinging.

“I’m in Manchester,” he said on BBC Today. “If I want to get across to Liverpool it will be 35 minutes. It’s over 50 now.”

The trouble with making a claim like that is that anyone can check within seconds that, in fact, hourly trains run between Liverpool Lime Street and Manchester Victoria in 37-40 minutes, including a couple of stops along the way.

Some trains take a lot longer, particularly links to Manchester Piccadilly. But the transport secretary did not qualify his statement.

Likewise, it was bold for Mr Shapps to assert: “Virtually everywhere gets much better services than was envisaged under the original HS2 plan.”

I am not sure that the people of Leeds, York, Darlington and all stations to Newcastle will agree. According to the Integrated Rail Plan, all of them get significantly worse services than envisaged under the original HS2 plan.

Should my analysis be mistaken, I look forward to being corrected. But if I am not, I wonder if a different spin might attract more public understanding?

Perhaps a confession like: “The chancellor says rail investment is a bottomless pit and we have to cut back. We’ll do our best with the cash he’ll let us have, including completing that Midland mainline electrification we abandoned halfway through, but you’re not going to get what we promised. Sorry.”

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