Rail upgrades in years or decades?

Labour cries betrayal over government plans for northern rail upgrades. But Jim looks through the fog of acrimony to see that there are some benefits.

Jim Hancock

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The government’s rail plan for the North has been met with general dismay. There is no full Northern Powerhouse scheme from west to east. There is no HS2 into Leeds. £18bn has been shaved off the bill for the ambitious upgrade of our overcrowded regional rail system.

We can see the government’s dilemma by focusing on the suggested new tunnel through the Pennines. It would have cost £40bn and not many current commuters would have been around to sample the benefits of the new link to Leeds.

So ministers have gone for quick fixes, although we have to define quick here. Much of this will take a decade or more, but you have to start somewhere.

Although Manchester is a major beneficiary from the government’s £96bn investment plan announced on Thursday, there is disappointment that the HS2 terminus will not be underground. Local MP Graham Stringer is worried that the last stretch into Piccadilly will be on stilts, blighting land around it. There is disbelief that there is still no decision to build two new platforms at the station to ease the bottleneck that can jam up a lot of the network.

That said, we will see major investment. Part of the Northern Powerhouse line is going to be built from Warrington to Marsden in West Yorkshire with the final stretch into Leeds on the existing track. Journeys of 33 minutes are promised by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps but some rail experts are casting doubt on such times considering fast and slow trains have to share the same track.

The Hope Valley line is to be upgraded to help address the chronically poor links between Manchester and Sheffield and the Transport Secretary said further investment would be announced in due course to address connections between Skipton and Colne and services from the Fylde in Lancashire.

If there are concerns this side of the Pennines, there is anger in Yorkshire. Bradford is to remain poorly connected and HS2 will not run to Leeds. That news was not met with universal dismay, particularly from people who’s homes were in its path. On that subject expect some lively debate now that the decision to bring HS2 through Crewe to Manchester has been nailed down.

So I don’t think rage is the appropriate reaction to the government’s announcement. We have always suffered in comparison to London, so there is nothing new.

I doubt if rail investment will undermine Red Wall Tories. Other developments this week are more likely to do that.

The Prime Minister has emerged from three weeks of sleaze looking diminished with serious divisions opening up with his backbenchers. One day you won’t be able to find a Tory who really supported him.

The other issue is elderly care. It doesn’t concern everyone but the revelation that details of the reform mean that someone living in a £90,000 house in Burnley who gets council help with their care will pay the same as someone living in a £250,000 dwelling in Surrey who is too wealthy to get council help, won’t play well in the North and Midlands.

ALOK SHARMA

Few leading Conservatives have distinguished themselves in the Johnson administration but Alok Sharma is an exception.

His efforts to get 200 nations to agree on a complex green deal in Glasgow deserves praise.

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