IT speaks volumes about the level of mistrust which still surrounds the failing Chris Grayling that few actually believed the Transport Secretary when he made this claim to Parliament.
“The £2.9bn upgrade of the trans-Pennine line will begin this time next year, as the start of a transformation that is vital to the North,” he told Huddersfield MP Barry Sheerman.
“In the coming months we will also see the arrival of the first of a complete new set of trains across the north of England that will transform passengers’ experience.”
Such is the scepticism that the region’s politicians did not know whether, to paraphrase the timeless adage, to be grateful for small mercies; disbelieving until engineering work actually begins – or furious over Grayling’s parsimony?
I’ll help them. It should, without doubt, be the latter if the North’s great cities are to be linked by the kind of world-class railway that is standard in London.
At face value, £2.9bn sounds impressive and Theresa May’s government is certainly investing more money in the area’s roads and railways than previous administrations.
However this does not make up for decades of under-investment – or the unprecedented sums being allocated to the South East.
For, despite the line from Leeds to Manchester being similar in length to the Central Line on the London Underground, it compares unfavourably with the £14.8bn that has been spent on the capital’s soon-to-open Crossrail line. It comes nowhere near the £30bn provisional cost for the second Crossrail line that Grayling advocates – which will directly benefit his Epsom constituency. And it doesn’t match the £7bn being spent on upgrading the Thameslink route through the capital.
This became self-evident when Grayling’s deputy Jo Johnson was cross-examined by MPs over the Thameslink scheme. Though there’s some short-term disruption, the construction of a fourth track north of Bedford means even more trains will be able to serve this commuter route from 2019 onwards.
And it’s also in Johnson’s best interests. Not only is he Minister for Transport – but he’s also Minister for London and also has a vested interest in the Thameslink project which he did not declare at the outset of last week’s debate.
“As an MP whose constituency sits on the Thameslink network, I share many of the concerns that have been raised in this debate,” said Johnson, who represents Orpington, rather belatedly.
“However, we should not lose sight of the fact that the Thameslink programme is an incredibly ambitious investment, which will transform travel across the South East for the coming decades.”
I don’t disagree. London’s economy does matter. Yet what chance is there of the North’s infrastructure being transformed when junior Johnson – his older brother Boris is the Foreign Secretary and a former Mayor of London – is motivated by constituency interests and when Grayling, one of the least trusted Ministers in recent history, has snubbed this region on countless occasions with his broken promises and reluctance to turn up for debates?
This £2.9bn smacks of tokenism when the ultimate objective should be a high-speed railway from Hull to Liverpool that has so much capacity – with faster and more reliable trains – that it reduces car use and makes it more practical for commuters to travel across the North.
Unlike HS2 which appears on track to become a railway for the elite, Crossrail for the North should be a trailblazer for social mobility so talented young people don’t feel they have to move away to advance their careers. It’s a national priority.
Yet, when Grayling did deign to answer a question about the downgrading of plans to electrify the Midland Main Line from Sheffield to London, and the introduction of unproven bi-mode trains, his response was extraordinary for its breathtaking complacency.
“Trains on the Midland Main Line require the addition of one engine to provide a little bit of extra acceleration, but they already exist, and will be great for that line as well,” said the glib Grayling.
A little bit of acceleration? It says it all. This region is making do with second-best while the Government’s full focus is on the South East’s transport network.
As Lord Adonis, the head of the National Infrastructure Commission who quit in protest at Grayling’s mishandling of the collapse of the East Coast rail franchise, told this newspaper last month, the Transport Secretary is hiding behind a “wall of waffle”.
“My strong advice to the political leaders of the North of England is that they need to be camped out in Whitehall demanding a real plan to link Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, and Hull, before the end of the year,” he added. “I can tell you that London, which is very good at getting its act together, has a detailed plan including costings and route proposals for Crossrail 2.”
I agree. If they can build new tunnels under the capital, it’s surely possible to carry out such feats of engineering under the Pennines if there’s sufficient ambition and desire to transform the North’s wider economy?
It’s also why this region must get its collective act together – Chris Grayling can’t be trusted to do so on our behalf.