From bold promises to disappointment - how HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail were scaled back

There was cause for cautious optimism in the North in February 2020 when Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that HS2 would go ahead, after months of speculation and concerns about spiralling costs.

The decision came after a review, led by the former HS2 Ltd chairman, Douglas Oakervee, recommended that Ministers should proceed with the high-speed rail project, even though the final bill could reach £106bn.

HS2 Ltd was told it could get on with building the railway between London and Crewe and “new delivery arrangements” would be made for phase 2b, that was due to link Crewe to Manchester, and Birmingham to Leeds.

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On the same day, the Prime Minister told Parliament that the Government was also committed to building Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR), adding: “It is not an either or proposition - both are needed and both will be built as quickly and as cost-effectively as possible”.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps had promised that HS2 would be built in full

Six months later, construction on HS2 began in London, while Transport for the North (TfN) was drawing up a business case for NPR, and northern leaders began to believe that the region’s inadequate rail network dating from the Victorian era was about to get the upgrade that passengers and businesses had been clamouring for.

The leaders were told the Government would set out clear plans for both schemes and reveal how they would be linked in its Integrated Rail Plan (IRP), which was due to be published in 2020, but after numerous delays, they began to raise concerns about its contents.

As the cost of building HS2 in the South of England continued to rise at an alarming rate, rumours that the eastern leg, which was due to link the West Midlands to Leeds, could be scrapped to save money emerged. The project was then thrown into doubt in December when the National Infrastructure Commission recommended that local rail links should be prioritised.

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Transport Secretary Grant Shapps promised the high-speed rail line would reach Leeds when he spoke in May, and actually admitted construction should have begun in the North, but he refused to reveal a publication date for the IRP.

Mayors, MPs and council leaders across the North called for the plan to be unveiled and repeatedly reminded Downing Street that if Ministers were serious about ‘levelling up’, they needed to deliver both projects to improve connectivity, increase capacity on a stretched rail network and unlock investment.

HS2 Ltd’s planning work for the high-speed rail links and TfN’s work on the NPR business case ground to a halt while awaiting the IRP, and Ministers insisted they would upgrade the North’s railways, but stopped making explicit commitments about either project.

And when Chancellor Rishi Sunak failed to mention either in his Budget in October, passengers prepared themselves for the inevitable disappointment of the IRP, which finally arrived yesterday.

The Government confirmed the eastern leg of HS2 will only run to East Midlands Parkway, and trains will then continue on an existing line to Sheffield but not reach Leeds.

The Government has also promised £17.2bn for a scaled-back version of Northern Powerhouse Rail, with a high-speed line between Warrington, Manchester and Marsden in Yorkshire, although Bradford has been cut from the route.

Instead of building a new line between Leeds and Liverpool as part of the NPR project, it has chosen to upgrade and electrify the existing Transpennine Main Line as part of a £5.4bn project.

According to the IRP, options for a new high-speed line were considered, but this would have cost an extra £18bn, shave just four minutes off a trip from Manchester to Leeds and not been operational until 2043.

Under the current plans, the Government expects some NPR services to “start running this decade” and trains will run from Manchester to Leeds in 33 minutes, 22 minutes faster.

Mr Shapps announced £96bn of funding overall for rail improvements overall - with £42.5bn for phases 1 and 2a of HS2 - and said it will “deliver punctual, frequent and reliable journeys for everyone, wherever they live”.

“Our plans go above and beyond the initial ambitions of HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail by delivering benefits for communities no matter their size, right across the North and Midlands, up to 10 to 15 years earlier,” he said.

However, politicians and business leaders in the North were furious, but not surprised, that the Government had refused to deliver what it had promised.

Shadow Transport Secretary Jim McMahon said: “Boris Johnson was elected on a promise to level the playing fields - to make things better for households across the country.

“We were promised a Northern Powerhouse, we were promised a Midlands Engine and to be levelled up.

“What we have been given today is a great train robbery - robbing the North of the chance to realise its full potential.”

Hilary Benn, the Labour MP for Leeds Central, added: “The Prime Minister repeatedly promised that HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail would be built in full. Today that promise has been broken and Leeds and the North have been betrayed.”

Robbie Moore, the Tory MP for Keighley and Ilkley, said he was “deeply disappointed” that Bradford had been cut from the NPR route and it would not be getting a new station.

He said: “Economic prosperity relies on good transport links, and today the Bradford district has been completely short-changed.

“We are one of the most socially deprived parts of the UK and I am therefore calling on the Government to review these plans urgently, so that Northern Powerhouse Rail can be delivered with a stop in Bradford, so we can unlock Keighley and the whole of the Bradford district’s potential.”

While Transport for the North’s interim chair, Louise Gittins, described the announcement as “woefully inadequate”, claiming the Government has agreed to provide less than half the £40bn that is needed to transform the North’s transport network.