Why the region can’t trust the Government’s shoddily put together transport plans - Andy Brown

It has been a very long time since a significant new railway was built in the North of England. Plenty got closed in the 1960s but, with a few tiny exceptions, the network is effectively operating on lines constructed well over 100 years ago.

There has, of course, been significant updating but there has never been a proper thought-out scheme for a modern coordinated service.

Instead, there is a mess of different operating companies, confusing ticketing systems, long and unreliable journey times between major cities and some of the most squalid stations in Europe.

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If we want our talented young people to stay and make their careers in the north then it is important that they have access to job opportunities across the whole of the region. Good reliable rail transport is crucial to opening that up. If we want companies to thrive here then we have to offer access to a pool of skilled labour that is drawn from across the region. At the moment poor transport links significantly restrict most employers in their recruitment.

The construction site for the HS2 project at Curzon Street in Birmingham. PIC: Jacob King/PA WireThe construction site for the HS2 project at Curzon Street in Birmingham. PIC: Jacob King/PA Wire
The construction site for the HS2 project at Curzon Street in Birmingham. PIC: Jacob King/PA Wire

In London they have just finished constructing their Crossrail project at a cost of £19bn and it is now a lot easier for financial services workers to get from the suburbs into Canary Wharf. In the North we have had much talk about a Northern Powerhouse Rail system but astonishingly little action.

The feeling of neglect that many of us have isn’t just a product of a chip on northern shoulders. It is evidenced by decades of statistics showing that investment per head in public transport has been seriously unequal. In 2022 the spend in London per head of population was £1,212 whereas in Yorkshire and the Humber it was £457. To put this bluntly, instead of being levelled up our region was levelled down and tax revenues were sucked out of the north to be devoted to the South.

All this has been taking place in the context of HS2. When it was devised we were told that this was the project that would drive redevelopment of the north and that it wasn’t just needed for speed but was essential to provide the extra capacity the service required for the future.

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Many, including the Green Party of which I am a member, criticised it from the first as likely to have a huge negative impact on the environment and suck up so much money that it would prevent other more effective small scale service modernisations from taking place. Greens worried that one massive vanity project would be built to improve journey times into London by a fraction whilst the connections between regional cities remained squalid. They predicted massive cost overruns.

I disagreed with my own party on this and believed that the investment was necessary to develop the capacity we needed on a very busy service and that any environmental cost would be offset by reduced car journeys.

Now we have the worst of both worlds. Freshly announced schemes for the north are just loosely costed ambitions for a distant future. The cancellation of the improved links to London are very real.

Instead of securing the future of the capacity of the line into Leeds we now have no improvement whatsoever in the service to London from anywhere in Yorkshire. The link to Manchester has also gone.

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In its place we have some headline grabbing promises about getting people between Bradford and Manchester in half an hour. What we don’t have is a timescale for delivery that can be relied on. Or plans that have been worked up in properly costed detail.

How can anyone in Bradford or Rotherham be confident that they will get their new station if a commitment as firm as HS2 has just been comprehensively dumped? Why should people in West Yorkshire believe they will get new tram lines when push comes to shove on costs?

When the government tried to build HS2 they badly underestimated the expense of the land purchases and failed to do proper land surveys and to get a realistic fix on the costs. The same mistake is being repeated. The new plans have been rushed through without even bothering to talk to the northern Mayors and their experts on the local area. Have they learned nothing?

The plans have been so shoddily put together that they include promises to build a tram line between Manchester and its airport that already exists.

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It takes time to properly plan and design a railway, acquire the land, cost the budget and allocate the funding wisely. It takes only moments to scatter casual promises that there is now enough money to deliver 70 wasteful road projects, build new tramlines across West Yorkshire, cut bus fares, and build new train lines and stations. Just before an election.

Instead of a well-planned rail investment strategy all we can rely on getting is an astonishingly expensive improvement to the service from Euston to Birmingham. Accompanied by a fresh round of badly costed unrealistic promises about what will happen in the North long into the future.

Andy Brown is the Green Party councillor for Aire Valley in North Yorkshire.