I’VE nothing against Reading. I was born there (don’t tell anyone!) before migrating north to the county that I now call home.
Yet, as business leaders from across the North meet in Leeds on Wednesday for a special transport summit, local knowledge helps and I’m more than envious of my home town’s train links with London.
The National Rail Enquiries website reveals there are 16 scheduled services from Reading to London between 7-8am each morning, the quickest taking just 27 minutes to reach Paddington. Other services go to Waterloo just across the river from Parliament. What a choice!
This is before the £14.8bn Crossrail line – Europe’s largest infrastructure project – opens next year when commuters will be able to travel from Reading direct to the City of London in less than hour without having to switch to the Tube, bus or foot. Beneficiaries will include Theresa May’s constituents in nearby Maidenhead.
Services on the Elizabeth Line will carry 1,500 passengers, be twice as long as Tube trains on the London Underground and put 1.5 million people within 45 minutes of central London.
The 45-mile journey between Reading and the capital is about the same, in terms of distance, as the trans-Pennine trip between Leeds and Manchester, the two cities which are at the heart of the Northern Powerhouse.
Yet, in the same 7-8am period on Monday, there were just eight services from Leeds to Manchester’s two stations with the quickest trip 49 minutes and the slowest one hour 40 minutes. It’s the same for those travelling from the North West to Yorkshire.
And many of these will have been the three-carriage ‘standing room only’ trains that I see trundling past The Yorkshire Post’s offices each morning. Talk about a North-South divide.
This is the context to today’s meeting between the Liverpool & Sefton, Greater Manchester and West & North Yorkshire Chambers of Commerce which, between them, represent over 8,700 businesses as well as key political leaders.
Research from the IPPR North think-tank shows the North had already been shortchanged to the tune of £59bn before Transport Secretary Chris Grayling announced, enthusiastically, his support – in principle – for a second Crossrail line in London that will cost £31bn and benefit his Epsom constituency.
Contrast this with the Government’s approach to Yorkshire where David Cameron and George Osborne’s promise, before the 2015 election, to electrify the TransPennine route had to be put on hold after polling day.
Conveniently, it was back on track before this June’s election – Mr Grayling specifically told this newspaper “the reality is we made promises and we endeavour to keep our promises” – before plans to electrify the Sheffield to London line were scrapped.
Meanwhile concerns grow about delays to the much-promised trans-Pennine upgrade, hence today’s summit.
Let me say that I don’t have sufficient expertise to comment on the suitability of electrification and its effectiveness.
What I do know, however, from talking to Network Rail chairman Sir Peter Hendy and HS2 chairman Sir David Higgins is that Britain’s planned high-speed rail network won’t be affected by poor reliability or punctuality because it will be weather-proofed.
My response is that this region should be demanding the same quality of service on the line from Hull to Liverpool. It is illogical that it can be quicker to drive from Hull to London than it is to travel across the Pennines to Merseyside by train.
Cities like Newcastle, York, Sheffield and Bradford are also integral to ‘Crossrail for the North’. As business leaders wrote in The Yorkshire Post yesterday: “It should not be seen as Crossrail 2 in London versus Northern Powerhouse Rail; both schemes are vital for Britain’s future.”
The benefits could not have been expressed more clearly by Leeds Chamber of Commerce president Gerald Jennings whose organisation hosted Mr Grayling when he was making lavish pre-election promises that were – regrettably – too good to be true.
“The ability to move people efficiently across the North increases the size of the available labour market and in turn builds potential for companies to grow their organisations safe in the knowledge that access to talent will not be a significant barrier,” he said.
What needs to happen next? Business leaders need to form a clear and coherent campaign to pressure political leaders.
A public petition has 70,000 signatures – and counting. It takes 100,000 names to get a debate in the House of Commons but the aim should be half a million names. This is about maximising the potential of the North, home to 14.5 million people, and making sure its voice is heard loud and clear on not just transport but a range of other policy issues.
If it’s good enough for Reading and London, it should be good enough for a trans-Pennine railway struggling to provide a 21st century service with infrastructure from the Victorian era and which Ministers like Chris Grayling would consider to be unacceptable on their commuter lines.