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18 November 2021

The great rail betrayal: Boris Johnson has abandoned the north

The government’s defence of its Integrated Rail Plan is like trying to persuade someone that cutting out the middle bit of their cat will be better because they will be left with two different bits of cat.

By Jonn Elledge

One of the questions you find yourself asking if you spend any time thinking about regional inequality in the UK is: why aren’t people angrier?

OK, they’re angry, as anyone who has ever felt moved to tweet an ostensibly innocuous comment like “London is nice” will know. But, for the most part, they’re raging-impotently-against-the-government angry, not taking-to-the-streets angry. Given that our current economic settlement has left most UK cities outside the affluent south-east with productivity on a par with those of the former East Germany, and given that we don’t even have half a century of communist rule to blame for it, the latter sometimes feels more appropriate.

Gross added value per worker across Europe. (Image from Centre for Cities)

This government built its 80-seat majority (a phrase that still hurts, by the way) on a series of victories in northern English seats that Labour has held for decades, and so has felt the need to talk as if it’s actually going to address this. Ministers manage to turn interviews to the topic of “levelling up” in roughly the same way a vicar can turn any news story to Jesus, and back in July Boris Johnson even gave a speech with the does-exactly-what-it-says-on-the-tin title of “The Prime Minister’s Levelling Up Speech”. This actually acknowledged the East German comparison – even if, oddly, he failed to mention that, where Dresden had communists to blame, Wakefield merely had the Tories.

Those were just words, though: the Integrated Rail Plan, published today (18 November), was where we’d expect to find the sort of real, sizeable capital investments that would show that this government is really, genuinely committed to tackling regional inequality, and that levelling up is more than just a slogan.

Can you guess what happened next?

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There are two major rail schemes on the table that, if properly delivered, would transform travel both to and around the north. One is HS2, the Y-shaped high-speed north-south route that will link London to Birmingham before dividing into a western arm towards Manchester, and an eastern one through the east Midlands to Leeds. The other is the east-west Northern Powerhouse Rail, previously known as both “Crossrail for the North” and “High Speed 3”, which would provide a better route between the myriad cities of the M62 corridor.

Of these, the latter is by far the easier sell: journeys within the north currently tend to involve infrequent services on creaking old two-carriage trains (good luck finding trains that small anywhere on London’s rail network, even on some of the more ridiculous branch lines). The inevitable question is, if things are that bad on services within the region, why spend all that money on shiny new fast trains to London?

Actually, though, both schemes do much the same job: by providing a new route for faster trains, they’ll allow the existing network to run more slower ones. Even though HS2 will run to London, building it will do wonders for local services too. The Northern Agenda newsletter recently published an interactive map showing what these two investments will do for Leeds. At the moment, a clear majority of British stations are more quickly reached by driving; building both Northern Powerhouse Rail and HS2 will turn that situation on its head.

The last weeks and months have seen a steady drip of poison suggesting one or both of these schemes was facing, if not the axe, then certainly some unnervingly large scissors. That culminated this weekend with a briefing to friendly Sunday newspapers, spinning as a positive that the western leg of HS2 would go ahead (nobody had ever suggested it wouldn’t), while arguing that the east would benefit from not one but two rail schemes: one from Birmingham to Nottingham, and a second from Leeds to Sheffield.

But these were not, as the Guardian media editor and noted train nerd Jim Waterson noted, two new schemes: they’re merely the HS2 eastern leg with the middle bit ripped out. It’s like trying to persuade someone that cutting out the middle bit of your cat will actually make things better, because it leaves you with two different bits of cat.

Oh, and the Northern Powerhouse Rail scheme seems to have been forgotten altogether, replaced with promises of “upgrades” on the existing route. Those upgrades have been promised before, and failed to materialise, and won’t in any case be even a fraction as good as a new line. (Enabling faster trains on existing lines might even make things worse by reducing the number of paths available for slower, local ones.) Once again, as London awaits the imminent arrival of Crossrail, the Midlands and the north make do with crumbs.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announces the government’s “integrated rail plan” to parliament.

The government’s defence seems to be that it is still spending £96bn to give the north faster trains. But it’s not clear how much of that is new money, and even if all of it were it’s a hell of a lot to spend on doing something badly. As a result, it will – and I’ve always wanted to use this phrase – not go down well in the Red Wall. One source told the Sun’s Harry Cole, “It’s a turd and the Treasury won’t even give us the money to put any glitter on it.” Forgive the use of such language in the magazine of Orwell, but it’s worth it for the official rebuttal: “That’s a pretty expensive turd” – surely one of the greatest Downing Street source retorts of all time.

At any rate: the government has made big promises to the north, and then totally failed to deliver on them. Again. Is Treasury orthodoxy to blame? Or Rishi Sunak? Or a PM too weak to face them down? I’m not sure it even matters.

[See also: Northern papers unite to condemn Boris Johnson’s rail betrayal]

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