ROSS CLARK: New rail move is an express plan to save billions

ROSS CLARK: New rail move is an express plan to save billions – but they must get on with it

True to form Labour has responded to the dropping of the eastern leg of HS2 from the West Midlands to Leeds by accusing ministers of abandoning the ‘Red Wall’ seats that helped deliver the 2019 Tories’ landslide election victory.

And the Opposition is not alone. Last night many Tory MPs and local leaders turned on the Prime Minister, accusing him of a great betrayal of the North.

Admittedly, the optics don’t look good for Boris Johnson, but the truth is that HS2 never was designed to help the former industrial heartlands of the Midlands and North. It was conceived to boost regional city centres rather than the poorer hinterlands such as Barnsley, Workington and Hartlepool.

Last night many Tory MPs and local leaders turned on Prime Minister Boris Johnson (pictured answering questions regarding HS2 in West Yorkshire on Thursday), accusing him of a great betrayal of the North after dropping of the eastern leg of HS2 from the West Midlands to Leeds

The Integrated Rail Plan announced yesterday attempts to put that right. 

It is that rare beast: a slogan that looks like actually doing what it says. It will integrate new lines into the existing rail system, offering better services to towns and cities missing from the original HS2 blueprint.

On the plus side, the new plan will eliminate the biggest absurdity of HS2: the planned station between Derby and Nottingham which would have left passengers having to take a tram to either city.

HS2 trains will now serve Derby and Nottingham directly. That will mean longer journey times from London to Leeds, but in return HS2 trains will be accessible for far more people. 

As for abandoning plans for a 125mph Transpennine line from Manchester to Leeds, the fact that those two cities are only 35 miles apart meant that the need for such a fast line always was spurious.

The more modest improvements proposed will still reduce journey times from 55 minutes to 33 minutes – the 125mph line would have shaved only a further four minutes off the journey.

Moreover, a new tram system for Leeds should help more travellers link up with trains. There is no point in speeding from Manchester to Leeds in a few minutes if the onward journey to the Leeds suburbs takes 45 minutes on a bus. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson onboard a train from Wolverhampton to Coventry rail station, as the government announces a new Integrated Rail Plan on November 18

Critics have claimed that upgrading existing lines will do nothing to increase capacity, but they’re wrong.

The plans include laying extra tracks alongside existing lines, while new signalling will also help to make fuller use of existing tracks. The number of Transpennine services are expected to increase by a fifth.

That’s not to say there aren’t problems. The revised plans won’t pacify those who see HS2 as an extravagance from the start. Most of HS2 – the London to Birmingham and Birmingham to Manchester sections – are going ahead as planned. 

The price tag for the Integrated Rail Plan is put at £96billion which, on top of the £8.3billion already spent on HS2, works out at £104.3billion.

That’s not far short of the £107.92billion price tag put on HS2 by Lord Berkeley’s report last year. 

However, this figure also includes the cost of the Transpennine update, including stretches of new line between Manchester and Huddersfield, full electrification of the East Midlands main line, improvements to the East Coast mainline and a new tram system for Leeds.

According to the Department for Transport, the full HS2 scheme plus a high-speed Manchester to Leeds line and other electrification projects would have cost a staggering £185billion.

The more modest investment announced yesterday will raise objections from those who view building any new railways in Britain as too expensive at a time when the government is running a deficit of £234billion, and the move towards working from home has reduced demand for rail travel.

And while the revised plans ought to help Nottingham and Derby, Bradford will miss out on the new Transpennine line. Nor are there details of a proposed Leeds tram system (to which West Yorkshire taxpayers will have to chip in), so it is hard to say what difference it will make to that city’s transport.

As to whether HS2 trains will ever reach Leeds – the jury is still out. They could, in theory, either continue up existing lines north of Sheffield, or they could travel via Manchester – another option considered before the eastern leg of HS2 was chosen.

The maps in the Integrated Rail Plan, however, show Leeds being served by speeded-up trains on the existing East Coast line. It would take 113 minutes to travel from London to Leeds – 20 minutes quicker than now but far slower than the 81 minutes promised via the eastern leg of HS2.

The new plan proposes another study to explore the Leeds options further – but that is depressing in itself. 

While other countries plan infrastructure schemes and then build them, in Britain we spend years producing plans, studies and revised plans, holding inquiries and setting up commissions – all before a single spade is put into the ground.

The Integrated Rail Plan is closer to what ministers should have come up with in the beginning, but it is unlikely to be the last word on the matter. Watch this space for yet more ‘improvements’ and ‘rethinks’ before the first HS2 train takes to the rails.

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