POLITICAL pressure is growing on the Government to prioritise improvements to a key rail route after Department for Transport rejected claims that a major Northern Powerhouse scheme had been hit by delays.
Plans to upgrade the Hope Valley Line between Sheffield and Manchester, where the Tories have just held their party conference, were due to have been completed by this year, according to Network Rail, to improve connectivity between two of the North’s largest cities.
However officials now say that “construction is expected to start in 2022” and be completed by 2023 – a hold-up which has been heavily criticised by Sheffield City Region mayor Dan Jarvis.
He is now due to meet Transport Minister Chris Heaton-Harris next Tuesday to point out how “ludicrous” it is that “it takes almost an hour by train to travel the 40 miles across the Pennines”.
Mr Jarvis has been backed by the Northern Powerhouse Partnership who now blame Whitehall “meddling” for the delay – and say it further vindicates the devolution of transport policy-making to the regions.
“The proposed upgrade to the Hope Valley line is the first tangible example of bringing the benefits of Northern Powerhouse Rail to the North - a downpayment on the full eventual network,” said NPP director Henri Murison.
“Both this project and the Trans-Pennine Rail Route Upgrade are principally running late because of indecision and meddling from Whitehall and further strengthens the case for devolving budgets for rail upgrades to the North.”
This was reiterated by Mr Jarvis who told The Yorkshire Post: “Planned improvement works by Network Rail should have already finished - and yet still they haven’t started. Delay is being compounded with further delay and, in the meantime, passengers are having to endure overcrowded, slow and unreliable services.
“That’s why I’m not prepared to sit back and accept any further slippage. I’ll be meeting with the Rail Minister next week to state my concerns. Rail passengers in the North cannot be treated like second-class citizens any longer.”
The work – when complete – should see improvements to sections of the railway between Bamford station and Jaggers Lane Bridge in Hathersage, and around Dore & Totley station, so faster commuter services can overtake slower trains travelling through the Peak District.
A Network Rail spokesman said: “The Hope Valley scheme was paused in 2016 by the Hendy review. The scheme is being reviewed to ensure it meets current railway standards before the contractor can go out to tender.
“Network Rail expects to put the contract out to tender in the next few weeks. The chosen contractor, once approved by the Department for Transport, should be announced by Autumn 2020. We are continuing to look at ways to speed up the start of the work. We are also liaising with train and freight operating companies to agree any changes to the network that may be required during construction.”
However Department for Transport officials told this newspaper that the improvements were not late because they were always intended to take place between 2019-2024, and that this remained the case.
A spokesman added: “We are updating the business case, working with Network Rail and operators to explore how to deliver this scheme as quickly as possible. It is important that any delivery date we commit to is achievable and represents value for money.”