Jonathan Schofield and the reality behind the leaked 'rail improvements'

Since this article was published, Northern leaders have come together to express their dismay to the Prime Minister Boris Johnson regarding the Integrated Rail Plan that was published this morning. We reproduce the letter here in full.

Dear Prime Minister,

As political and business leaders representing the North of England, we are writing to express our concerns over today’s announcement of the Integrated Rail Plan.

We are concerned that by omitting both the Eastern Leg of HS2 and the new Leeds to Liverpool route of Northern Powerhouse Rail – with stops in central Bradford, Manchester and Warrington – you have failed to fully consider the advice of independent rail reviews, the ambitions of Northern leaders, and the appeals of our businesses.

Your decision, contrary to your ambition to “level-up” the North, runs the risk of holding back our regional economies and compromising our plans to cut carbon emissions, just days after we hosted COP-26.

People across the North were excited by your promise of new rail infrastructure and the benefits of a better-connected North – not only quicker travel times but more jobs and homes, new investment and regeneration, and better opportunities for our young people.

In our view, this pared-back plan will not unlock the full potential of the North of England.

These decisions go beyond party politics and indeed our generation. They are critical to the future of the North for the next 100 years and more. Given this, we believe elected representatives in all parts of the country should have an opportunity to consider whether your proposals represent a fair deal for their constituents before they are finalised.

We are therefore asking you to call a free vote on these plans in Parliament. We look forward to your response.

Yours sincerely,

Tracy Brabin; Andy Burnham; Jamie Driscoll; Dan Jarvis; Steve Rotheram; Joanne Anderson; Cllr David Baines; Paula Basnett; Cllr Martyn Cox; Paul Dennett; Cllr Neil Emmott ; Cllr Louise Gitting; Cllr Daren Hale; Asif Hamid; Cllr Susan Hinchcliffe; Cllr Keith Little; Cllr Ian Maher; Lesley Martin-Wright; Tracy Mawson; Cllr David Molyneux; Cllr Graham Morgan; Cllr Eamonn O’Brien; Rachael Owen; Cllr Shabir Pandor; Cllr Arooj Shah; Cllr Brenda Warrington; Cllr Andrew Western; Cllr Mike Wharton; Cllr Janette Williamson; Cllr Elise Wilson; Sir Richard Leese

The government loves its leaks. Speaker Lindsay Hoyle had to rebuke the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, recently over his prolonged briefing with favoured media before the October budget was revealed in the House of Commons. The Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) has been equally sieve-like but after many delays, it was announced today.

It’s laughable and insulting to expect people to be satisfied with watered down schemes and crumbs from the table

Lord Jim O’Neill, the vice-chairman of the Northern Powerhouse group, summed up on Radio 4 what the aims should have been with IRP.

“The whole idea of the Northern Powerhouse infrastructure is to connect into one economic unit the cities and towns across the North. That includes the whole area of Manchester westward to Liverpool and eastward to Sheffield and Leeds and then extending northwards to Newcastle.

“As I’ve said on many occasions,” said O’Neill. “The distance from Manchester to these places is shorter than the Central Line in London. One way to make an economic unit of producers and consumers numbering 8m people is to have a fast, frequent and affordable train service. We want people to move around with the ease of London Tube commuters. To save a few billion they are risking all that.”

Northern Paowerhouse Rail News Manchester 2
The plan will hardly do much to increase rail freight across the North Image: Confidentials

Grant Shapps, the Transport Sec who revealed the IRP, said that's exactly what the plan would do. He bullishly said: "The IRP would fire up the north's economies to match those of the south-east". He said work would start on the aspects of the IRP before Christmas and journey times would be cut across the North and Midlands. Boris Johnson writing in the Yorkshire Post yesterday stated the journey time between Manchester and Leeds would reduce from, presently (at its fastest) of 56 minutes to 33 minutes. Overall the plan will cost £96bn much of which is not new money and much of that won't be spent in the North. The original plan was costed at £110bn. 

Northern Paowerhouse Rail News Manchester 3
Northern Powerhouse on the wall when it was much more powerful, unfortnuately that was a century ago Image: Confidentials

The most controversial aspect of the IRP is that the eastern arm of HS2 from the Midlands through Sheffield to Leeds will be scrapped. For many commentators, this is just one of the betrayals contained in the IRP. So while Manchester will still get the HS2 connection from Birmingham it won't get a high-speed link (equivalent of HS2) over the Pennines to Leeds. Instead, the reduced journey times will come from upgrades and a new track but not a new line. 

Lord Jim O'Neill again.

“If Leeds to Manchester is going to be 33 minutes with a lot more trains and the work is done a lot quicker than envisaged in the original plan that’s good,” said O’Neill. “But it’s not clear how they can do that with a single new track from Manchester to Huddersfield and then by using the existing line on to Leeds. There’s the issue of freight as well, it doesn’t look like this will take freight off the M62 and put it on the track.”

This government's ministers and spokespeople have reiterated 60 times the "levelling up" agenda would be intimately tied to delivering on infrastructure. O'Neill is not alone in being disappointed after all the promises the plans have been watered down.  

Northern Powerhouse Intergrated Rail Plan
Victoria Station in Manchester Image: Confidentials

Jim McMahon MP, Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary, was even more scathing over the IRP, saying: “The Integrated Rail Plan (should have been delivered) what has been promised. For too long communities across the North have been left with substandard infrastructure, whilst facing record fare increases. 

“Instead of taking action on the cost of living crisis and fixing the transport problems they created, the Government is looking the other way, trapping people in a cycle of regional inequality, high tax and low growth.

“It’s laughable and insulting to expect people to be satisfied with watered down schemes and crumbs from the table, after putting their faith in a Prime Minister who has gone back on his word at the first opportunity.”

Northern Powerhouse Integrated Rail Plan As It Will Happen
The plan for the North from the Intergrated Rail Plan Image: Department of Transport

In some respects given Tory successes in breeching the Red Wall in the 2019 General Election, this IRP plan is surprising. Clearly, the government thinks the reduced plans won't play negatively for them in future elections. However, if fares rise and trains remain subject to overcrowding or endless cancellations the increasingly indignant Conservative MPs in freshly won northern seats may become more restless and the prime minister may find it difficult to keep them on track - so to speak.

The problem for the new Northern MPs will be finding a voice to make their case in the cabinet. Out of 21 cabinet members, there are just three with northern constituencies and those sit some distance from the main cities. Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, is MP for Richmond, North Yorkshire, Ben Wallace, Defence Secretary, is MP for Wyre and Preston North, while Anne-Marie Trevelyan, International Trade Secretary is MP for a constituency so far distant it might as well be in Norway, Berwick-upon-Tweed. All the other cabinet ministers, except the two at the Welsh and Scottish offices, all hold constituencies south of Birmingham. 

For more details of the future of rail transport, see the full Integrated Rail Plan

The Integrated Rail Plan at a glance

  • High Speed 2 (HS2) from Crewe to Manchester on the route and line speed as previously planned with new stations at Manchester Airport and Manchester Piccadilly
  • HS2 trains will run from London to Manchester in 1 hour 11 minutes
  • New high-speed line from Birmingham to Manchester
  • A new high-speed line between Warrington, Manchester and Yorkshire finishing east of the Standedge tunnels
  • Fully electrified, expanded and upgraded conventional lines between Liverpool and Warrington
  • Grant Shapps confirms HS2 will no longer run to Leeds
  • Instead, the government promised fully electrified, expanded and upgraded conventional lines from the east of Standedge tunnels to Leeds
  • Work will start on the West Yorkshire Mass Transit System