Crunch rail talks between Westminster and northern leaders could go ahead next week

Crunch talks could go ahead between ministers and northern leaders next week in an attempt to break the stalemate on rail timetabling that risks upending schedules in the north of England for a decade.

Time is running out for Whitehall officials and northern figures to reach an agreement after regional leaders were previously told they had to agree to a new schedule designed to reduce rail congestion around Manchester due to come into force late next year or face being stuck with reduced Covid timetables for an unspecified amount of time.

Leaders had reluctantly said they would accept the new so-called ‘B-plus’ option, subject to a number of conditions including the publication of the Integrated Rail Plan.

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‘B plus’ would see direct trains from Sheffield to Manchester Airport axed, as well as other services significantly reduced.

File photo dated 26/02/15 of train timetables at Sheffield station (PA/Lynne Cameron)

Reassurances that the airport route would be reinstated were among the Transport for the North board’s requests.

However earlier this week, the TfN board received a letter from rail minister Chris Heaton Harris who said the Government could not make any promises on future investment and that leaders needed to make a decision on whether to accept the new timetable or stick with the reduced pandemic schedule by August 6.

Leaders do not want to accept the new timetable - which they believe could impact schedules across the north of England for the next decade - without assurances from Government on infrastructure, and The Yorkshire Post understands that TfN figures are now optimistic about securing talks next week ahead of the Friday deadline, and are willing to go right down to the wire to get a deal done.

South Yorkshire Mayor Dan Jarvis said he hoped there could be “a constructive conversation about how to proceed” in the near future.

“We essentially find ourselves in a situation I don’t believe people in the south of England would be required to face and therefore I want to Government to look at what more can be done, what additional resource can be unlocked in order to invest in this process so that we can seek a better outcome which will give us a much better chance of levelling up the north of England.”

Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Transport Across the North and Conservative MP for Harrogate and Knaresborough Andrew Jones said: “There have been many changes proposed to the timetables, and there are some winners and there are some losers. What the concerns show is just how important communities and their representatives feel good connections are."

A spokesman at the Department for Transport said: ““We encourage stakeholders to engage with the LNER timetable consultation, and LNER will set out next steps once the consultation closes on August 6.”