The government decision to scrap the eastern sections of the HS2 high-speed rail project is unsurprising. Rumours that the Tories were looking for short cuts over the project alongside an apparent new “package” of upgrades had circulated for some time. But the government’s own claims that their new package of upgrades to existing lines adds some new capacity bear scrutiny.
The section that would have connected Birmingham to Leeds will now end at the existing East Midlands Parkway station. A new high speed line between Manchester and Leeds has gone. Instead it will end in Marsden, West Yorkshire, and then there will be upgrades to the existing network.
This is the effective scrapping of the original Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) project, replacing it by the Integrated Rail Plan for the North and Midlands (IRP). Whatever the problems with HS2, the limited gains that could have come from it will be lost. Bradford, which is the worst-connected city in Britain, but would have been a stop on the new high speed line, will not be included in the IRP. Solidarity has no fixed view on HS2. This writer believes it would be wrong to focus activist time and energy on opposing it, but it will probably fail to deliver the kind of benefits that its supporters champion. Investment in rail and transport, particularly in the north, would better start with the electrification of the railways, and particularly the lines running East to West between Hull and Liverpool.
Electrification would help to upgrade a crumbling rail network, allowing more and better services, and it would also bring environmental benefits, with the scrapping of diesel trains. Improvements in rail’s freight capacity would also have the benefit of removing HGVs from the road network.
Electrification was another project abandoned by the Tory government in 2016. Even before that, they had limited the scope of their plans.
The local transport network connecting towns and cities outside the London commuter belt is in a parlous state. Relatively short journeys across the Pennines and within some large city regions can take as long as the journey from London to Leeds or Newcastle to Edinburgh. There has been a rather mild war of words between Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, and some London-based Labour MPs. But pointing out the regional disparities need not mean ignoring or neglecting the necessary improvements to the transport system in and around London, which is also inadequate.
Essentially, the Tory government is determined to continue with the breakup of the railway and bus networks. even when its “operator of last resort”, i.e. the state, is running an increasing number of lines.
As Burnham must know, Transport for London faces a big funding squeeze too. That follows from the Tories’ removal of the government subsidy — so London is now unique among metro systems in large cities in lacking subsidy — and the impact of Covid-19 in reducing fare income.
Labour should be arguing for full public ownership of the transport system and its infrastructure to deliver an integrated system fit for purpose. Burnham is right when he says that the plans are a “patchwork quilt of upgrades that roughly costs the same, will mean greater disruption to existing users and will not deliver the capacity uplift that is needed. More trains on existing tracks can only result in a poorer service than at present”.
The IRP looks like another failure of the government to do any real “levelling up”. Instead the Tories are papering over the cracks with another plan which will fail.