Leeds train misery is evidence that HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail downgrades as short-sighted as Beeching cuts – Tom Richmond

IF Ministers and officials working from the Department for Transport’s new branch office in Leeds look carefully, they will see why the decision to scrap the eastern leg of HS2 to Leeds – and downgrade Northern Powerhouse Rail – is as shortsighted as the Beeching cuts of the 1960s.

I enjoy a similar view from my desk at The Yorkshire Post’s offices on the same road – trains pulling in and out of the main station in Leeds before quickly coming to a halt on the track if there’s the slightest delay or mishap because this outdated infrastructure simply cannot cope with the current number of services that are timetabled to run.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

I also experienced it first-hand a week ago when I made my first post-pandemic train trip to London. Having caught a service on the local Ilkley line into Leeds, I nearly missed the connecting train to King’s Cross because of delays waiting for a platform to become available. “It’s the same every day,” the guard told indignant passengers.

Boris Johnson and the Government continue to come under fire for scrapping the eastern leg of HS2 to Leeds and downgrading Northern Powerhouse Rail.

Coming back from London where the cancellation of one East Coast Main Line service led to a mad scramble onto another train – and all Covid rules out of the window – the train slowed before coming to a weary stop outside Wakefield.

Five minutes became 10 before an announcement acknowledging that there was a problem. Ten minutes became 20 before confirmation that there was a points failure and no indication when weary travellers would be on the move again.

Twenty minutes became 30, and then 40, before the train jolted back into life – but not before the on-crew staff had explained that the defective track was a recurring issue on the Wakefield stretch because of its age and that they, too, are kept in the dark by Network Rail.

Andrew Stephenson is the HS2 Minister.

Now, in the grand scale of life’s challenges, this is fairly mundane and vindication for the far-sighted decision by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps to create Great British Railways so one body is ultimately responsible for the success or failure of the network as political pressure grows on people to make greater use of public transport.

But one piece of broken rail stopped trains moving in either direction for a considerable period of time, led to a breakdown in communications and a worrying realisation that such mishaps are actually the future of the train network here.

For, given that there’s only one track in each direction on the East Coast line through Wakefield, and the alternative route via Barnsley and Sheffield is even slower, what possesses Ministers to think HS2 high-speed services will be able to operate on such rickety infrastructure?

And, while £100m has been set aside to explore alternative options, with HS2 Minister Andrew Stephenson telling one Tory backbencher “We have not ruled out the construction of the full eastern leg at this stage; we are looking at whether it is the best long-term solution”, few actually trust him – or his government – on this now totemic issue.

Boris Johnson and the Government continue to come under fire for scrapping the eastern leg of HS2 to Leeds and downgrading Northern Powerhouse Rail.

After all, the Prime Minister said repeatedly that HS2 will be built in full. It will not. Boris Johnson also asserted on multiple occasions that Northern Powerhouse Rail would lead to a new line between Leeds and Manchester. His lies are more frequent than some trains.

Yet look at the language used by the aforementioned Stephenson. To amenable colleagues like Kevin Hollinrake, the Thirsk and Malton MP who has been critical of the Integrated Rail Plan, the Minister’s tone even suggested that a U-turn could be possible.

Contrast this with his tone with his more aggressive stance when challenged by Bradford MPs Naz Shah and Judith Cummins over both HS2 and decision to exclude their city from Northern Powerhouse Rail. Phrases like “We do not intend to U-turn” and how the IRP “will deliver benefits to communities across the North sooner than ever expected”.

He can’t have it both ways – and I suspect Stephenson was ad-libbing because he’d been forced to attend the Commons to answer an urgent question about the downgrading of Transport for the North.

Boris Johnson and the Government continue to come under fire for scrapping the eastern leg of HS2 to Leeds and downgrading Northern Powerhouse Rail.

Yet no one is any wiser – two weeks after the IRP was published to widespread condemnation and consternation – across this region if it was the work of the Department for Transport, the Prime Minister or Johnson’s transport adviser Andrew Gilligan who does appears to have undue influence for an individual with no obvious qualifications in engineering or infrastructure.

But this matters because it is clear – from just one day’s experience – that the Government’s plan is so flawed that it had no input from DfT staff now based in Leeds and who don’t have to go far to realise that it is impossible to increase capacity without building two new high-speed lines? Unless they, too, are in denial about this political great train robbery.

Support The Yorkshire Post and become a subscriber today. Your subscription will help us to continue to bring quality news to the people of Yorkshire. In return, you’ll see fewer ads on site, get free access to our app, receive exclusive members-only offers and access to all premium content and columns. Click here to subscribe.