Transport Select Committee demands the Department for Transport (DfT) shows its working for changes to HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail
The government is in danger of letting down the people of the north of England with its proposed cuts to rail investment, the Transport Select Committee has said.
In a wide-ranging report, The Integrated Rail Plan for the North and Midlands, MPs on the all-party committee accuse ministers of underserving passengers with cuts to proposed trans-Pennine and HS2 lines – as well as promising unachievable journey times.
The committee chair, the senior Tory MP Huw Merriman welcomed the scale of the £96bn investment: “The business case of HS2 was based on it going east to Leeds.
“Now, it stops in the East Midlands without any understanding of how much money is saved.
“Those we spoke to from the cities of Leeds and Bradford, in particular, do not recognise that the finalised plans meet either the promises they believe were made or the prime minister’s stated aims.”
The Independent has analysed the key areas of contention.
This large West Yorkshire conurbation “has been rated one of the worst connected cities in the UK”. The report says the rail journey from Leeds takes two minutes longer than it did in 1910.
Initially a new station on a new high-speed line between Manchester and Leeds was promised. But both the line and the station have been cancelled. The existing line across the Pennines will be upgraded, but bypasses Bradford. The government says improvements to existing lines will allow a Leeds-Bradford journey time of just 12 minutes rather than a typical time of 20 minutes. But experts poured scorn on the claims.
The MPs say: “We received detailed evidence that cast doubt on the plausibility of the journey time reductions that are achievable under the plans to upgrade existing lines rather than build new ones; we ask the government to publish its full technical appraisals of the feasibility of these reductions.
“The potential of Bradford as an engine room of the Northern Powerhouse may be squandered if it is not given opportunities to thrive through better connectivity.
“Direct high speed connections would give the city access to a much broader pool of labour, as well as allowing other cities to benefit from the talent and potential of its own residents.
“Leaving such a large and dynamic city behind would undermine the project of levelling up the country.
“The government should reconsider the case for the development of a new station in Bradford.”
The West Yorkshire city was intended to be connected with Birmingham and London on the eastern leg of the new high-speed line, HS2. But the planned HS2 East has been scrapped in favour of some improvements to the existing East Coast main line from London and a curious routing for high-speed trains from London to Manchester, where the service would reverse to travel across the Pennines.
The planned HS2 hub – effectively expanding the current Leeds station – has also been axed.
The MPs say expansion is desperately needed: “Capacity in Leeds station is limited and delays are frequent. Leeds is currently at 101 per cent capacity and is the third-greatest source of delay for the entire UK network.”
Northern Powerhouse Rail was initially going to use a new underground station adjoining Manchester Piccadilly, allowing through trains to run. It would free up space that could be commercially developed. But now the plan is for a six-platform above-ground terminus station.
Professor Jon Shaw of Plymouth University told MPs that the German government has moved away from such designs and was now focused on transforming rail in Stuttgart with a new, underground through station for inter-city trains. He concluded that “we are doing things which other countries are leaving behind”.
The committee says: “There is a need for a renewed, transparent conversation about the risks and benefits of the underground station option at Manchester Piccadilly.
“The possibility of significant land value being unlocked by the underground option – and therefore of local contributions to the scheme – should factor into these conversations.”
The West Midlands hub is the only city outside London where rail is the dominant form of commuting.
In order for the city to be able to handle extra HS2 services, a new Birmingham station will be built at Curzon Street under HS2 Phase One. The site is a 10-minute walk away from New Street and is adjacent to Moor Street station.
Even so, West Midlands Mayor Andy Street told MPs that Birmingham New Street, at the heart of the British railway network, already runs at full capacity and that anything that goes wrong there “has consequences across almost the whole country”.
He suggested that “if we do not solve [capacity issues at New Street], the rest of what we might do is almost irrelevant.”
Besides faster journey times, a key benefit from HS2 was to be freeing up capacity on existing lines to improve local and regional services. But the government decision not to build the eastern leg could reduce links between many intermediate stations to “a skeleton service” to make way for faster trains.
“The high-speed segregation provided by the original HS2 eastern leg would have allowed towns like Belper in Derbyshire or Outwood in West Yorkshire – currently very poorly served compared to smaller destinations on lines into London – to benefit from released capacity on their local lines for more services to Derby and Leeds respectively.
“In order to make sure that faster non-stop trains can run on the same lines, we may end up with fewer local trains … it obliterates the chance to enhance regional and local services.”
The MPs say: “By underserving the rail needs of the North of England it is letting down those who require change the most. Upgrading lines will undoubtedly bring modest benefits to rail services in the North and Midlands, but not to the transformative extent necessary to end regional imbalances.”
One long-promised benefit of the new high-speed line was to reduce dramatically times between London, Birmingham and Scotland, in particular Glasgow on the West Coast main line.
The key to unlocking those benefits was the controversial Golbourne link though Cheshire and Greater Manchester connecting HS2 and the West Coast main line.
It has been scrapped after meeting intense local resistance.
“Without this connection, a bottleneck will be created north of Crewe on the West Coast main line, which in turn will negatively impact outcomes for passengers, decarbonisation and levelling up,” say the MPs.
“Such an important, strategic question of how HS2 services connect into Scotland cannot be left open or uncertain.”
A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “The Government’s £96bn Integrated Rail Plan is the largest single rail investment ever made by a UK Government, and this report significantly underplays the benefits it will bring to millions of passengers for generations to come.
“The Plan, which is backed by detailed economic analysis, is already benefiting our regions with 26,000 jobs created for the HS2 project alone, and will deliver transformational benefits to communities across the North and Midlands, far sooner than under previous plans.”