While on initial inspection, it would be churlish not to welcome the confirmation of £780m of funding to pay for much-needed improvements to rail services in Yorkshire, the announcement by Prime Minister Theresa May timed, to coincide with her Cabinet’s visit to the North-East, demands further scrutiny.
No new money for the infrastructure work that is planned on the East Coast Main Line route is being promised beyond funds that had already been announced; the current proposals do not include previously-promised capacity upgrades for services between York and Newcastle and what is due to happen is still years away.
The improvements, including regular journey times of two hours between Leeds and London by May 2020 as well as new services to Huddersfield and Middlesbrough, were first announced back in 2015 when Virgin Trains East Coast took over the route franchise, and were meant to have been in place by May 2020. However, the Department for Transport, led by its Minister Chris Grayling can now only say the work will be done by the early 2020s.
Weary northern passengers who have seen long-promised schemes such as the electrification work between Sheffield and London scrapped will be within their rights to be cynical on exactly when these new plans will see the light of day. But it is to be hoped that both the Prime Minister and her beleaguered Transport Secretary have learned the lessons of a chastening few months involving unprecedented travel chaos on northern rail routes.
This work is vital to both improving services on the existing line and facilitating the successful future delivery of high-speed services. Delivering these improvements is now a litmus test in proving if the Government’s stated commitment to the North can be trusted. If it cannot, there is trouble on the track.