Why Northern Powerhouse Rail should be the priority now - David Behrens
That’s what happened to a group of travellers earlier in the week and their experience demonstrates precisely why we don’t have HS2 and never will have.
Perhaps you read about it: they were en route from London to Edinburgh when some of them got an email – that’s right, an email – telling them the train they were on was now cancelled. There was no word of this from the train crew because no-one had bothered to tell them.
The service ground to a halt at Preston, which is a long way from Edinburgh in every sense. Promises of another train failed to materialise and so, several hours later, 100 or so taxis had to be ordered. A school in Glasgow was forced to hire a coach to rescue 50 of its pupils too young to travel in cabs without an adult.
It was a monumental piece of mismanagement that HS2 would not have prevented. A faster train might have reached the middle of nowhere five minutes sooner, that’s all.
Rishi Sunak must have known this as he vacillated about whether to continue building the high speed line to the North, curtail it outside a fish and chip shop in Stoke or cancel it completely. A poll suggested four in 10 Northern voters favoured the latter and Keir Starmer’s telling silence suggested he did, too.
This latest debacle underlined a problem that had been staring everyone in the face: the skills simply do not exist within the railway industry to run the service we’ve got, let alone deliver a new one. There is no other reason to explain the out-of-control costs that have derailed HS2.
There exists only one group of people who think otherwise and they’re the ones sitting around the boardroom table at HS2 Limited, the “arm’s length” public company supposed to be building the new line. Three managers alone have collectively paid themselves £1.3m for presiding over the shambles and 43 others have been collecting in excess of £150,000.
They are, said one anonymous and presumably envious Whitehall official, “like kids with the golden credit card”.
The chief executive of HS2 until this week was Mark Thurston, who earned £676,000 in the last year including a £39,000 bonus, making him one of the government’s highest earners. He might have been worth it if the project had been delivered on time, on budget or indeed at all – but in the present circumstances it’s simply a reward for failure.
Yet while HS2 may be beyond rescue, it’s not too late to learn from its mistakes and apply that learning to the country’s other big rail project, the far more useful Northern Powerhouse line – HS3 – which, if it sees the light of day, will connect the great cities of the North.
George Osborne, who as Chancellor mooted both projects a decade ago, suggested this week that it was pointless to have one without the other and so it may seem if you live in London.
But most people in the North travel within the North, not out of it, and it’s here that the investment is most lacking. HS2 was a replacement for a just-about-adequate existing service whereas the current east-to-west line is barely functional. So one was a vanity project; the other is a lifeline.
Mr Osborne’s rationale is that a section of HS2 south of Manchester would also form part of the HS3 line, and that building HS3 without it would add £15bn to its cost. But even if you accept – and why should you? – that this is not just a figure plucked from thin air, it’s an argument for redrawing the plans, not abandoning them. The blueprint for HS2 was never universally agreed; there were cheaper and better alternatives and this is the time to revisit them.
Look at it this way: it takes roughly twice as long on our current railway to travel across the Pennines as it does to cover the same distance north to south. And it’s a pattern unique to our part of the country; the further south you go, the more trains there are in all directions. It’s a disparity wrought by generations of under-investment in the North and it’s exactly what we’re supposed to be levelling up.
So while I was never convinced by the arguments for HS2, the case for HS3 is as solid as a concrete roof. Hopefully more so. Abandon it now and you condemn the North to see out the rest of the century as a landscape of disconnected communities, cut off from investment and from each other. The party that signs off that agenda will not want to face its members in Manchester next year. Their conferences in future will have to take place inside the M25 – or better still, on it.