Rumours that the government will water down promises to radically improve the North’s rail services are “deeply worrying”, a top transport boss says.
Martin Tugwell, chief executive of Transport for the North (TfN), has added his voice to major worries and anger across the region over an expected downgrade of the HS2 rail project and a new inter-city line.
The government is poised to release its long-delayed Integrated Rail Plan this week, with reports suggesting it will drop plans to build the full HS2 eastern leg to Leeds and only commit to upgrading the existing transpennine track rather than building a new ‘Northern Powerhouse Rail’ line between Leeds and Manchester.
TfN has called for the full delivery of both schemes in a bid to create significantly faster and more reliable train services across the North, paving the way for hundreds of thousands of new jobs to be created.
Mr Tugwell said: “If the rumours are true then it is deeply worrying because it means we won’t have the benefit of that comprehensive transformation of the rail network that will make the difference.”
He told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “The catalyst for that is Northern Powerhouse Rail and HS2, connecting the towns and cities of the North in a way they are currently not. That’s where you get the transformation, that’s where you get the benefit for people and businesses.”
During a visit to the North East on Tuesday, Mr Tugwell said there needed to be a “step change” by building new rail links rather than simply committing to piecemeal upgrades to existing routes.
The TfN boss, who confirmed he had not spoken to the government about its plans ahead of their expected confirmation on Thursday, added: “The North has, in essence, a two-track Victorian railway and it is carrying an incredible amount of trains and people and freight at the moment. If you are going to make the transformation then you need to have something extra.
“In many ways, one could argue it is the same argument that the government used in justifying the first phase of HS2. It was not about doing some tweaks to the West Coast Mainline, they recognised you needed a step change in capacity to be able to make the difference. The argument is the same in the North.
“We have a two-track railway carrying a lot of trains and we need to make the step change. That means investing in new lines 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 you will not get that transformational change. And I don’t see it being delivered as a network that will connect Liverpool in the west to Hull in east, and that connects Sheffield with Newcastle and beyond. That is why this is so important.”
What is being said by leaders in Manchester?
Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham said levelling up would be dealt an ‘extremely severe blow’ if the rail rumours are true.
He said: “Our position hasn’t changed. Many of the points that we are calling for are promises that have been made to Greater Manchester over the years.
“We will wait to see the detail. But in many ways, building on the work of the Northern newspapers today to speak with one voice for the people of the North, I believe you will see business and political leaders across different geographies and across different political parties doing the same.
“These decisions are fundamental to the future of the North of England economy.
“They are hugely significant in terms of our ability to create a more productive economy going forward and all of the benefits that comes from that. That’s why we’re quite clear in saying there’s no change in our position.
“We shouldn’t see short-term decisions being made to save money when actually we then miss a massive opportunity to build the right transport solution for the North of England for centuries to come.
“That’s why I think we owe it not just to our residents of today – but also of tomorrow and indeed next century – to hold out for what is right for the North of England at this moment in time.
“We’ve accepted second best for far too long and that is not going to happen anymore. We expect promises made to be delivered.”
The Labour mayor dismissed upgrades of existing railway lines as a ‘rebrand’ which would not deliver the promises first made by the Conservatives in 2014.
He pointed to the Prime Minister’s promises of a new line two years ago and claimed the case for that new line to go through Bradford is ‘overwhelming’.
The metro mayor also argued that the Western leg of HS2 between Crewe and Manchester must be delivered in full with a new underground through station at Manchester Piccadilly as well as a fully-funded stop at Manchester Airport.
The former Leigh MP also said the ‘golden link’ connecting Wigan to the west coast mainline would bring ‘significant benefits’ to parts of the city-region.
Mr Burnham welcomed the £1bn of government funding for Greater Manchester’s local system which was announced last month and said he was hopeful that further funding would be secured for a ‘London-style’ transport network.
But he argued the importance of rail connectivity across the North of England.
He said: “One announcement of funding alone doesn’t level up Greater Manchester with London, nor indeed the rest of the North with London and the South East.
“It has to be sustained investment both in intra-city transport – internal transport – but also inter-city as well. It’s not a case of one or the other.
“Nor is it a case of choosing between good North-South or good East-West. We need both. And the reality is other parts of the country are getting both.”
What does No.10 say?
Downing Street has said that ministers “recognise the importance of improving transport links across the North as a way to level up the country, that’s why it is an absolute priority for the government”.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said on Tuesday: “Grant Shapps will set out the full details on Thursday. But we are fully committed to strengthening the rail links in our cities, across the Midlands and the North. He recognises the importance of improving journey times across the country.”