Northern Powerhouse Rail; can Boris Johnson still be believed? – Tom Richmond

HOW times change. Two years ago Boris Johnson made this commitment while campaigning for the Tory leadership: “I want to be the Prime Minister who does Northern Powerhouse Rail.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson giving a speech on domestic priorities at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester three days after taking office in July 2019.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson giving a speech on domestic priorities at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester three days after taking office in July 2019.

He blurted out those words – literally – in his usual shambolic way while addressing Tory activists in Exeter, the opposite end of the country, on June 28, 2019, and I reported on them for The Yorkshire Post to ensure they remained on the record.

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I was reminded of them this week when it emerged that the Government was looking to scale back plans to build a new high-speed line between Leeds and Manchester via Bradford – the Crossrail of the North – and instead adopt a ‘make do and mend’ approach to the existing route via Dewsbury and Huddersfield where tunnels and the terrain are a legacy of its Victorian past.

Commuters at Leeds Station - the future of Northern Powerhouse Rail is again in doubt.

A route that has come to define the North-South divide when it comes to rail investment, and the need to improve connectivity to enhance jobs and opportunities, this latest betrayal needs to be set in the context of Johnson’s other promises since taking office.

This is what he told MPs on July 25, 2019, when he set out his priorities a day after becoming Prime Minister: “Yes, I am a huge fan of Northern Powerhouse Rail...It is a truly visionary and exciting plan.” Good.

To business leaders in Manchester two days later on July 27: “I want to be the Prime Minister who does with Northern Powerhouse Rail what we did for Crossrail in London. And today I am going to deliver on my commitment to that vision with a pledge to fund the Leeds to Manchester route.” Better still. He continued this theme in the Queen’s Speech debate in Parliament on October 14: “We want to boost the productivity of the whole UK with massive investment. We will begin with Northern Powerhouse Rail.” No turning back?

Again, on December 19 when he set out his post-election legislative programme after sweeping gains across the North: “We will take forward our plans to rejuvenate and, in many cases, to revolutionise the infrastructure of Britain, including Northern Powerhouse Rail.” A small doubt?

Boris Johnson 9right) pledged to build Northern Powerhouse Rail during a visit to Manchester three days after taking office.

He even delivered a Commons statement on transport infrastructure on February 11, 2020, when he said: “We are building Northern Powerhouse Rail as fast as we can.”

He also promised to consult on plans for a new station in Bradford. That’s going well. Not.

And he left no one in any doubt at Prime Minister’s Questions on November 4 last year as the Government looked at post-Covid recovery plans: “I can certainly confirm that we are going ahead with Northern Powerhouse Rail.” Reassuring.

The same at PMQs on December 9: “We are getting on with both the eastern leg of HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail.” So no doubts?

The future of Northern Powerhouse Rail has again been thrown into doubt.

And on February 24, 2021, in response to Hull North MP Dame Diana Johnson, the PM denied reports of cuts to Transport for the North’s budget and a scaling back of ambition. “We intend to invest massively in Northern Powerhouse Rail,” he said. Looking back, what did he mean?

Johnson is not alone – Chancellor Rishi Sunak told me in June last year that he accepted that Northern Powerhouse Rail’s progress was a test of trust and integral to the region’s recovery: “It is going to be vital.”

Now it seems the North is back to the start – a region having to again go into battle while no expense is spared when it comes to completing the over-budget Crossrail in London, while the Prime Minister remains, at best, economical with the truth about his intentions here and, at worst, a deceitful leader whose lies are as frequent as late-running trains here.

EVEN though rail franchise Northern is now government-controlled, its current performance leaves much to be desired.

Transport for the North policy papers this week report: “The operator continues to perform well with around 70 per cent of its trains on time” between May 30 and June 11.

‘Performing well’? That means 30 per cent of trains are late. In what other sphere of business would such a level of performance be judged to be a success? Clearly much more needs to be done to lift the entire rail network out of its collective slumber if passengers are to come first.

For, while 94 per cent of TransPennine Express services were punctual in the same period, there are growing concerns about social distancing breaches as passenger numbers begin to increase.

Alas, TfN report no plans to increase the existing number of services, to help social distancing compliance, until May 2022. You could not make it up.

THERE’S one reason why John Bercow has joined Labour at this point – to get the peerage that the Tories have denied the former Speaker.

Yet the surprise wasn’t Bercow’s bombast towards the Tories; it was his unflattering comments about Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer. “I don’t know if he’s going to make it politically – or not.”

That, in itself, is damning.

TREVOR Phillips might have been an acclaimed chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, but he owes the North an apology following his Sky News interview with Justice Secretary Robert Buckland.

This saw Islington-born Phillips, in the premise to a question, attribute the Tory defeat in the Chesham and Amersham by-election to the “mad pursuit” of voters in so-called ‘red wall’ seats.

Mad pursuit? The implication was voters here are less sophisticated than elsewhere. Talk about insulting.

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