TRANSPORT Secretary Patrick McLoughlin has watered down a pre-election Conservative promise to Yorkshire to build the second phase of HS2 from the North.
During a visit to the region Mr McLoughlin said the idea of starting construction of the high speed rail project between Leeds and Birmingham from the North was “something we are looking at” and he would be asking HS2 Ltd, the Government-owned company delivering the project, to examine the idea.
His carefully chosen words contrast sharply with the unambiguous commitment the Conservatives made in the heat of the election campaign.
The “Conservative Plan for Working People in Yorkshire and Northern Lincolnshire”, unveiled by the Prime Minister during a campaign visit to marginal West Yorkshire seats in April, promised a Conservative Government would ensure “Phase two of HS2 will also start construction from the northern ends, with the Leeds to Sheffield Meadowhall section made a priority to open even before the line as a whole opens, to bring forward the benefits for Yorkshire”.
Asked today whether the pledge made in April was still Government policy, Mr McLoughlin said: “We are very keen to see us get the complete benefits and it’s how do you get those benefits, how do you get the benefits of faster times? And that is something I would be expecting HS2 to come forward with.”
He added: “It is something I’m looking at, we will look at and (HS2 chairman) David Higgins will let me know what can be done. I know it’s a desire from people in the area and I will try and look at whether that desire can be fed.”
Mr McLoughlin said he wanted the HS2 project to be delivered quicker but the Government could hit legal problems “if we don’t follow the right criteria”.
The Government’s election promises on transport in Yorkshire have already come under scrutiny this year after delays to electrification of the Trans-Pennine route and Midland Main Line were announced just weeks after polling day.
A new timetable for the work was announced in September but the Public Accounts Committee of MPs subsequently warned there remains “much uncertainty” over when the electrification work will be completed and the cost.
The Transport Secretary will seek to offer commuters better news when he announces the awarding of new rail franchises for the transpennine and northern networks.
During his visit to the Kirkstall Forge station currently under construction in Leeds, Mr McLoughlin confirmed the franchise deals will be revealed “shortly” and it is understood an announcement could be made this week.
But Labour criticised the Government’s apparent backtrack on its commitment to build the second phase of HS2 from the North.
Shadow Transport Secretary Lilian Greenwood said: “This latest U-turn calls the sincerity of the Government’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ rhetoric into serious question.
“HS2 is a vital project but far from accelerating construction to Yorkshire, Ministers are refusing to even confirm the route and stations north of Birmingham until late 2016.
“It’s unacceptable that the Government will have taken at least six years to set out their plans for high speed rail in the North.”
The first phase of HS2 will take the line from London to Birmingham. In phase two, one arm will continue north to Manchester and a second will serve stations in South Yorkshire and Leeds before connecting into the existing East Coast Main Line.
The Yorkshire Post understands council leaders in the region are continuing to lobby HS2 chairman Sir David Higgins on the merits of building the Leeds to Sheffield Meadowhall stretch early and later connecting it to the line to Birmingham.