Boris Johnson’s support for a new line between Leeds and Manchester as part of Northern Powerhouse Rail, announced in his recent speech at Manchester’s Science and Industry Museum, is very welcome.
Transport for the North, together with Northern leaders, have developed an ambitious yet achievable plan for a transformative new rail network spanning the North of England. This will “turbo-charge” the economy, helping to deliver the promise of a truly integrated Northern economy that will provide greater opportunity for the North’s 15 million residents.
However, whilst the new Prime Minister’s warm words on Northern Powerhouse Rail are promising, I also echo Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham in urging him to commit to funding the entire Transport for the North plan and to turn his words into action.
The case to build Northern Powerhouse Rail as soon as possible is clear. In 2016, the Northern Powerhouse Independent Economic Review found poor transport connectivity to be one of the key factors contributing to the lower than average levels of economic growth in the North. Recent analysis by the West Yorkshire Combined Authority has also shown that Yorkshire and
The Humber received among the lowest levels of Government spending per head on economic development and transport, being short-changed by over £800m per year.
Anyone who travels across the Pennines by rail will feel the effects of this underinvestment and know services are unreliable, frequently packed and often delayed. While demand for rail travel has rocketed in recent years, investment in our infrastructure has failed to keep up.
Piecemeal improvements are insufficient to match the ambition of the North and our transport network requires a step-change in investment to make travelling across Northern England a quicker, more pleasurable experience.
It is important that this once in a generation opportunity is fully maximised and done in the right way. To benefit the greatest number of people, it is crucial that NPR not only links Manchester and Leeds more quickly and frequently, but that it includes a city centre station in Bradford – the fifth largest economy in Northern England.
Currently, it takes over 20 minutes to travel the seven miles between Bradford and Leeds city centres. To Manchester, it takes almost an hour on an unelectrified line, often on creaking carriages that are almost 40 years old.
More than 45,000 people commute between Bradford and Leeds each day, but 74 per cent of these commuters travel by car. This holds our economy back, is bad for the environment and, most importantly, prevents the people of Bradford from realising their full potential. It has been shown that 38 per cent of job seekers in our district cite poor transport connectivity as a barrier to employment.
That is why any new Manchester to Leeds line must include a Bradford city centre station and I urge Government to not waste time considering NPR options that don’t include Bradford. Bradford is the largest city in the UK not on the main line rail network – an unacceptable situation for a city of its size with a population of over 530,000.
Improving our connectivity would provide businesses with opportunities to access new markets in Bradford and beyond and allow workers to broaden their horizons when seeking employment.
Bradford is the youngest city in the UK, with nearly a quarter of the population aged under 16, and by 2024 the city’s working age population will grow by 24,000. Tapping into this mass of young talent will boost the local economy, creating 15,000 new jobs across the Leeds City Region whilst adding £15bn to the Northern economy by 2060.
However, bringing Northern Powerhouse Rail to Bradford is about more than just connectivity. This vital new infrastructure will unlock inclusive economic growth across our district. A city centre station will act as a catalyst for regeneration for the whole city and provide an attractive environment for businesses looking to grow and invest.
The North needs to seize the opportunity provided by the Prime Minister to accelerate the NPR delivery timescale, alongside HS2. Only by improving our connectivity nationally and internationally, linking more closely to other Northern cities and Manchester Airport, and increasing capacity on local transport networks, can we begin to realise Bradford’s enormous potential.
This is a once in a generation chance to increase opportunity for millions of people across the North of England, Prime Minister. Let’s make sure we get it right and deliver Northern Powerhouse Rail in full, including a station in Bradford city centre.
Susan Hinchcliffe is leader of City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council