Northern Powerhouse Rail delay is Boris Johnson’s latest ‘great train robbery’ – Tom Richmond

HERE are six more words that summarise Boris Johnson’s ‘great train robbery’ here: “We will do Northern Powerhouse Rail.”

Graeme Bandeira's cartoon of Northern Powerhouse Rail is in The Yorkshire Post this weekend.
Graeme Bandeira's cartoon of Northern Powerhouse Rail is in The Yorkshire Post this weekend.

After spending days building up expectations that there would a major announcement in the PM’s party conference speech, it became just another of the fatuous slogans to be recycled and regurgitated.

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Johnson may think that this is clever, but a careful critique of his language could conclude that this landmark project is, in fact, no further forward than it was two years ago.

This was Chancellor Rishi Sunak showing Boris Johnson the route of Northern Powerhouse Rail during the Tory party conference.

This column at the end of June listed the nine previous speeches when Johnson had given a supposed commitment to transform rail services between the North’s cities as part of a social mobility revolution.

Johnson’s speech on Wednesday is the 10th such occasion – but the phraseology was little different to June 28, 2019, when he told Tory activists in Exeter (don’t ask) that “I want to be the Prime Minister who does Northern Powerhouse Rail.”

Are Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak turning their back on Notthern Powerhouse Rail?

Geography is clearly not taught at Eton – or, if it is, very badly – after the PM’s rambling diatribe on levelling up this week involved a tortuous ramble about the South Buckinghamshire village of Stoke Poges.

But the point is a serious one because landmark new data by the Onward think tank reveals for the first time how many jobs are reachable by car and public transport in every local area in the UK – exposing a shocking transport gap between North and South.

Workers in towns like Halifax and Mansfield, so-called levelling up bastions, can reach half as many jobs by public transport compared to Aldershot and Horsham, despite similar populations and jobs markets. In London, public transport nearly quadruples residents’ local access to jobs.

As the report’s senior research James Blagden said: “Outside the south of England, poor public transport is holding back opportunity and growth. Improving connectivity within city regions and between city centres and outlying towns, will be key to the success of levelling up.”

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak were among those to talk up the possibility of an announcement on Northwern Powerhouse Rail at the Tory party conference - but none was forthcoming.

Yet this will hot happen until there’s an acceptance that capacity on the rail network needs to be increased so faster and greener trains can run with greater frequency and, therefore, make it possible for workers of all ages and abilities to access job and training opportunities.

It is also imperative that HS2 is completed in full, including the eastern leg to Leeds, so there’s a chance, in this age of climate change, to transport more freight by rail rather than road.

However the PM’s silence was ominous as he chose not to mention Britain’s largest ever construction project in his keynote address.

And it comes back to this central point. Even though Boris Johnson appears emboldened by an enfeebled Labour opposition, he can’t keep governing by slogan if he’s serious about Northern Powerhouse Rail becoming the symbol of levelling up rather than another ‘great train robbery’ of the political kind.

I’M looking forward to the next series of Great Railway Journeys which will feature Michael Portillo’s adventures from the Tees to the Humber.

He was unmistakable filming in Beverley last weekend in his bright red trousers and even more garish long orange coat as he waited for a Northern service.

Yet, given how he’s credited with saving the Settle to Carlisle line when Rail Minister, and such an enthusiast for train travel, let’s hope his insight is utilised by Grant Shapps, the current Transport Secretary, to improve services still further here.

EVEN though Rishi Sunak remains the popular choice to succeed Boris Johnson, and went out of his way to portray himself as a low-tax Brexiteer to the Tory faithful, he has a genuine rival in Liz Truss, the new Foreign Secretary.

Despite her previous record – and who will ever forget her derisory response to the Yorkshire floods of Christmas 2015 – she will make a virtue of her decision to oppose the National Insurance hike to fund the NHS and social care.

Equally Truss, who grew up in Leeds, will point to her remarks on food shortages, saying that Boris Johnson should not be “responsible for what’s in the shops” in a free enterprise economy.

And while both stances will polarise opinion, remember the only electorate that will count when there’s a leadership contest is the Tory membership who, for now, hold Truss in higher regard than Sunak and will continue to do so if there’s a genuine winter of discontent in the coming weeks.

CAN you help? Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham was introduced as the ‘king of the North’ by both the BBC’s Andrew Marr, and Trevor Philips of Sky News, in interviews last Sunday to coincide with the Tory conference.

Why? What has he done to merit this sobriquet – and does his ‘realm’ include this side of the Pennines or not? It would have been far better if both channels had introduced Burnham as the man who wants to replace Sir Keir Starmer as Labour leader – and who thinks he can do a better job.

FINALLY words like ‘bravery’ and ‘courage’ are frequently overused – particularly in sports commentary. For their true definition, I refer you to Rob Burrow’s searingly honest book, Too Many Reasons to Live, on his career in rugby league and battle with motor neurone disease.

Until now, I never truly appreciated his bravery tackling men mountains almost twice his size – and his courage coming to terms with his incurable illness. Read the book and help the MND Association, you’ll see what I mean.

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