North’s betrayal; MPs must force vote on HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail downgrade – Tom Richmond

AN open question to this region’s 54 MPs: how are you going to force Ministers to rethink the so-called Integrated Rail Plan for the North and Midlands?

Even the name of the supposed strategy is a misnomer; there’s nothing integrated after Boris Johnson’s London Government virtually wiped this county off the high-street rail network. But this contempt also extends to Parliament because there does not appear to be a mechanism for the non-plan to be put to a vote of MPs – our representatives.

And that is why MPs, already condemned to second class status by an autocratic Downing Street regime, should be demanding line-by-line scrutiny, debates and votes on every aspect of this supposed £96bn announcement.

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That’s right. MPs doing their jobs, pulling together and speaking up for this region, before Yorkshire’s future is further compromised rather than accepting a calamitous announcement as a fait accompli and waiting for the relevant planning leglisation to be drawn up. By then, it will be far too late.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a visit to the Network Rail hub at Gascoigne Wood, near Selby, North Yorkshire, to coincide with the announcement of the Integrated Rail Plan.

It would also be far more productive than the rival visits of the Prime Minister and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer to Yorkshire for the TV cameras as Transport Secretary Grant Shapps made his Commons statement last Thursday.

There were gasps of incredulity as Shapps took a Beeching-like axe to the eastern leg of HS2 while the ‘high speed’ element of Northern Powerhouse Rail will extend from the North West to just two miles inside Yorkshire at Marsden.

But these monumentally short-sighted decisions, given how rail investment spans many decades, is compounded still further by the small print on page 112 of the non-Integrated Rail Plan that acknowledges the importance of Leeds and Sheffield – two cities that were due to be HS2 beneficiaries.

“However, despite being 39 miles apart by rail, connectivity is poor, with the fastest journey time currently being 40 minutes, which is only achieved once per hour for most of the day,” it says. “Connections will be further considered within the work on how best to take HS2 services to Leeds.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a visit to the Network Rail hub at Gascoigne Wood, near Selby, North Yorkshire, to coincide with the announcement of the Integrated Rail Plan.

In other words, the Government has no back-up plan. Are all MPs content with this? By comparison, it will take just over 20 minutes to travel by train from nearby Reading to London – a distance of around 30 miles – when Crossrail opens. Services will be every five minutes.

Are MPs across Yorkshire going to put up a fight over this – or are they content with the M1 becoming ever more congested just 10 days after the conclusion of the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow?

It’s the same with rail connections from Sheffield and Leeds to Hull. Even the Government admits that the status quo is unacceptable “with journey times of 77 and 57 minutes respectively”.

It describes Hull as “a key port and integral to the regional economy” but says “any future development work... should focus on electrification and line speed improvements to improve journey times”.

Will the Integrated Rail Plan lead to better rial services in Yorkshire - or not?

Note the use of the word “any” – three small letters that suggest that a government allegedly committed to levelling up has little or no intention of improving future links to Hull or to the North East.

I’d be very interested to know whether the East Riding’s Tory MPs are going to accept this or not – a Commons vote would make it easier for MPs in Yorkshire and the so-called ‘red wall’ to be held to account by voters at future elections.

And then the decision to upgrade the existing trans-Pennine line from Leeds to Marsden, just short of the county boundary, before a new stretch of track is built to Manchester and beyond.

Respected individuals like Lord Jim O’Neill, a Treasury Minister when the Northern Powerhouse was first launched, believe it will be impossible to run six high-speed trains an hour in each direction because of the sheer volume of other services using the same Victorian railway tracks in Yorkshire.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a visit to the Network Rail hub at Gascoigne Wood, near Selby, North Yorkshire, to coincide with the announcement of the Integrated Rail Plan.

I put this to the Department for Transport and asked for the relevant engineering analysis to be published. They declined, simply saying trains “will be protected by next generation train control and signalling”. In light of this vagueness, it is difficult to see how any of the Government’s changes can come about when rail network is already at capacity in Leeds – look at the trains stacking up outside the city’s station daily waiting for platforms – while Bradford is still denied a mainline station of its own.

And given Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s past view that the Northern Powerhouse must be more than “a slogan”, MPs are duty-bound to put the brakes on this shambles before Yorkshire loses even more investment and status. If not, they’ll be just as culpable as those Ministers in Boris Johnson’s London Government who will feel emboldened to treat the North with even greater contempt in the future if they’re allowed to get away with this particular great train robbery.

Tom Richmond is Comment Editor of The Yorkshire Post. He tweets via OpinionYP.

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