Derailed North transport projects suggest ‘levelling up’ is empty slogan - Bill Carmichael

London Mayor Sadiq Khan admitted he felt like a “little boy before Christmas” as he boarded a train at Paddington station on the new Elizabeth Line, which opened this week.

His excitement is understandable. The £19bn project, although delivered late and over budget, is a “game changer” that would transform the city, he said.

Fast modern trains, running 12 times an hour and each carrying as many as 1,500 passengers, will run, when the line is fully open, for more than 73 miles from Reading in Berkshire to the west of the capital to Shenfield in Essex, to the east.

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More than 26 miles of new tunnels take the line beneath central London and no fewer than 10 new stations have been built. Journey times and capacity have been transformed, with improved connectivity to Heathrow airport and even as far out as Bristol.

CANCELLED JOURNEY: Grant Shapps, Secretary of State for Transport delivered a ‘hammer blow’ to hopes of transport improvements in the North. Picture: Ian Forsyth/Getty ImagesCANCELLED JOURNEY: Grant Shapps, Secretary of State for Transport delivered a ‘hammer blow’ to hopes of transport improvements in the North. Picture: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images
CANCELLED JOURNEY: Grant Shapps, Secretary of State for Transport delivered a ‘hammer blow’ to hopes of transport improvements in the North. Picture: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

Well, bully for them! Meanwhile, northerners feel like the little child whose Christmas has been cancelled. We stand shivering in the street, looking forlornly through the toyshop window at the expensive wonders inside that we will never be able to afford.

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When I looked at the map of the Elizabeth Line, I couldn’t help but transpose it in my mind’s eye onto a map of northern England. This would create an east-west Crossrail project that could link Liverpool, Manchester, Bradford, Sheffield, Hull and York, with spurs running off to Birmingham and up towards Newcastle and Scotland.

Journey times would be cut and capacity increased. The productivity and prosperity of some of the most disadvantaged areas of the country would be transformed. It would, in Mr Khan’s words, be a “game changer”.

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This was more than a dream, but a realistic and costed scheme, developed with Network Rail, and called Northern Powerhouse Rail. But of course, it hasn’t happened.

Given the choice of spending billions on new infrastructure projects in the poorer North, or in London, where the jobs and housing market are already overheated, the Westminster government invariably chooses the latter. So much for “levelling up”.

Last November Transport Secretary Grant Shapps delivered a hammer blow to hopes of transport improvements in the north with his Integrated Rail Plan (IRP). This scrapped the eastern leg of HS2 to Leeds entirely and substantially downgraded plans for the Northern Powerhouse Rail project, designed to improve west to east links.

This £36bn project originally envisaged a brand new 40-mile high-speed line connecting Manchester to Leeds via Bradford, with further connections to Liverpool and Hull and improved routes to Sheffield.

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This was scrapped on the grounds of cost and £18bn shaved from the project. It is funny isn’t it – cost never seems to be a barrier to projects in the South East, but frequently derails improvements in the North.

Instead, Mr Shapps offered the north a short stretch of new track between Warrington and Marsden tacked on to the existing overcrowded Transpennine line. Leeds gains no new high-speed links at all, while Bradford and Hull were removed from the project entirely. It is hard to see this as anything more than a few crumbs from the table of the rich and powerful elite in Westminster.

At the same time Transport for the North, seen as the North’s equivalent of Transport for London, saw its funding from government slashed by about £20m. Oh, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson is now championing another big rail project for the South East called Crossrail 2.

It will link Surrey in the southwest of the capital, through central London, to Hertfordshire in the north, at cool cost of some £30bn. What’s the betting that cost won’t be a problem with this one?

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As we have seen with the Elizabeth Line, these big projects can be eye-wateringly expensive, but they can also lead to major and long lasting improvements in productivity and economic growth.

The UK is held back by regional inequalities. If the regions were as productive as the South East of England we would be a much more prosperous and equal country. Spending on infrastructure, particularly transport, is one way of achieving that.

But transport spending in London is around two-and-a-half times more per person than in the North of England.If the Government is truly serious about “levelling up” then it is time that the jam was spread a little bit further northwards.

This morning I’ll be commuting into work by train, as I have done for many years. On a good day the service won’t be cancelled because of signalling problems or the shortage to train crew. If I am really lucky I might just bag a seat.

And I’ll be thinking about whether the Government’s promise to “level up” is more than just an empty slogan.