Today
Sun 5 December 2021

David Hencke tracks the ways in which successive governments have watered-down their transport promises to the north and the midlands

The Government’s new rail ‘improvements’, intended to ‘level up’ the transport systems of the north and the midlands, are the latest in a long series of U-turns from successive Conservative governments.

Boris Johnson’s administration has cancelled the eastern leg of HS2, to Leeds, and has reduced the scope of high speed train services from Liverpool to Hull.

The Government’s plans are merely a dumbed-down rehash of what former Transport Secretary Justine Greening announced nine years ago – rather than a new, exciting project to reward Conservative ‘Red Wall’ voters.

In 2012, the Government committed to a version of HS2 that would have swallowed both Manchester and Leeds – alongside a huge electrification programme for the rest of the country. Instead, we now have some of the same promises repackaged, with the Government pretending they are part of Johnson’s supposedly transformative ‘levelling up’ agenda.

If the Conservatives had kept their original promise, the Midlands electrification from Bedford to Sheffield would have been opened in 2020. Yet, former Transport Secretary Chris Grayling cancelled the bulk of the programme in 2017, essentially turning the project into yet another fast commuter route into London.

Grayling aggressively defended his decision in 2017, telling MPs on the Commons Transport Committee that “spending a billion pounds shaving a minute off the journey time to Sheffield at a time when there are capacity constraints elsewhere on the network still to be tackled, didn’t seem to be the best use of money.” Grayling claimed that he saved passengers years of disruption that would have been caused by the electrification works.

Grayling also promised new, untested ‘bi-mode’ trains – featuring both diesel and electric engines – which are heavier on the track and require much more maintenance. This led former Cabinet minister, Nicky Morgan, then Conservative MP for Loughborough, to say: “Now we see the decision to cancel it was based on fantasy trains that didn’t even exist and the Midlands being a guinea pig for an untested technology.”

We will soon know whether this is true. This part of Grayling’s plan survived his sacking. His successor, Grant Shapps, announced that East Midlands Railways had put in a £400 million order for 33 of these new bi-mode trainsin August 2019, the first of which would be delivered in 2023 – even though they will only have seven years of use before the line is scheduled to be fully electrified in 2030.

There was another small U-turn last year, when electrification was extended from Kettering to Market Harborough. Johnson claimed last week that this extension formed part of his new integrated rail plan. In fact, it is part of an earlier announcement. Work began last February, clearing vegetation to install overhead gantries and wires.

A similar picture exists for the trans-Pennine rail electrification previously announced by Justine Greening – linking Manchester and York via Huddersfield. If the Conservative Party had kept its promises, the line would have been electrified by 2018. Instead, it is still at the planning stage, having been shelved in 2015. Now, instead of 2018, electrification will arrive by 2032 at the earliest.

Similarly, upgrades to the east coast mainline were promised in 2012 but not followed through. They will now have to wait until 2035.

But, perhaps the biggest rail electrification plan to have been dumped was Justine Greening’s proposal for a £3 billion “electric spine” running north from Southampton Docks through the midlands and on to Sheffield – linking the north directly to freight export opportunities. It should have opened in 2019.

This scheme was scrapped by Grayling in 2017, despite millions spent on improving tracks and bridges. But, because it was overshadowed by his cancellation of the midlands mainline project and a cut back to the Great Western Railway electrification between Cardiff and Swansea, its demise seems to have gone largely unnoticed.

Overall, despite new rhetorical flourishes, several Conservative governments have now been playing the same tune on rail improvements in the north and Midlands – one set to the tempo of backsliding and disappointment.

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