The Government faces a Commons challenge today over the future of the trans-Pennine rail link amid growing fears the planned electrification of the route could be scrapped to save money.
Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary Andy McDonald has been granted an Urgent Question in Parliament as government officials came under pressure over reports that the £3bn upgrade of the route would not include electrification between Leeds and Manchester. Rail Minister Jo Johnson will respond early this afternoon.
A group representing northern business and civic leaders last night called for strategic body Transport for the North to be given full power over all northern rail infrastructure and responsibility for overseeing the vital project.
According to the reports, a report by Network Rail setting out how journeys on the 76-mile route could be improved found that the option to electrify the line was the most expensive, because of the difficulty of fixing electric cables to Pennines rock.
The Government says the reports are “pure speculation” and that officials are considering the options presented by Network Rail before making a decision later this year.
Mr McDonald told The Yorkshire Post: “Cancelling TransPennine electrification would be a betrayal of the North.
“Yorkshire has suffered decades of underinvestment and if this vital upgrade is scrapped at the same time as Grayling backs further investment in the South East with Heathrow expansion and Crossrail 2, it will be the final straw for the people of the North.
“The Government should be matching Labour’s £10billion+ commitment to build a Crossrail for the North, not cancelling already promised upgrades.”
Hull North MP Diana Johnson said that if the reports were true, “this would mean that George Osborne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ has finally been cancelled and the new Transport for the North body increasingly looks powerless and side-lined”.
Yorkshire has suffered decades of underinvestment and if this vital upgrade is scrapped at the same time as Grayling backs further investment in the South East with Heathrow expansion and Crossrail 2, it will be the final straw for the people of the North.Andy McDonald
In a message to MPs today responding to the reports, Ministers said that “unlike some other investment projects, the Transpennine upgrade will be a rolling programme of enhancements, including both major civil engineering projects and electrification.”
The message added: “ The key to delivering improved journey times on what is a very circuitous route through the Pennines involves rebuilding and relaying most of the track bed from Manchester to York.
“We are awaiting Network Rail’s final project plan, but we have instructed them to prioritise those elements which bring the quickest passenger benefits. This will include things like straightening lengths of track to improve line speed.”
It added that the goal of the scheme was to deliver four fast, two semi-fast and two local trains per hour across the Pennines, and that the Department would get the final project plan later this year.
Electrification of the trans-Pennine route from Manchester to York, via Leeds, was announced by then-Chancellor George Osborne in the 2011 Autumn statement, with the aim that work would start in 2014.
But in 2015 the project was “paused”, before being put back to the five year ‘control period’ starting in 2019.
The future of the trans-Pennine electrification was thrown into doubt last summer when Transport Secretary Chris Grayling cancelled two similar schemes in other parts of the country, citing the emergence of new bi-modal technology that can run on both electric and diesel power.
In March, Mr Grayling told The Yorkshire Post that the £3bn upgrade of the line would involve a mix of improvements and that “part of our strategy is electrification, where it makes a difference to journey times,” as well as new junctions and line straightening.
He said: “Electrification is part of what we are doing across this route, we have already electrified sections of the trans-Pennine route, electrification will be part of this, and the new bi-mode trains arrive in the North in 2019, so long before we finish this programme, people will be travelling on trains that will be with them for a long time across the Pennines, and experiencing a better travel experience.
“Part of our strategy is electrification, where it makes a difference to journey times. But what I am keen to focus on is what is the outcome for the passenger, and what I want for the passenger is faster journey times, new trains and a better travelling experience.”
Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, said: “The key elements to creating a fit-for-purpose train service across the Pennines are enhanced frequency, delivering on-time, reliable trains and significantly cutting journey times.
“The government have committed to spending £3bn on upgrading the line between York and Manchester – quite apart from the new line they will need to commit to between Leeds, Bradford and Manchester to deliver Northern Powerhouse Rail – and the best options for how this money is spent must be based on all available evidence.
“What is vital is that the North must be allowed to make the final decisions – not the Secretary of State alone. Giving Transport for the North full power over all Northern rail infrastructure and responsibility for overseeing this scheme would mean that our leaders can explore how to deliver the best solutions for passengers, whether this be full or part electrification, to allow the upgrades to deliver 3,000 seats an hour between Leeds and Manchester.
“Decisions which affect the North should be made openly and with proper debate and accountability to business and communities.”