High speed rail – the backlash begins

The northern media and political backlash against the apparent scrapping or downgrading of plans for high-speed rail to the North East (HS2b) and a new trans-Pennine link from Manchester to Leeds, Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR), has begun even before the official announcement is made.

The government is expected to reveal its Integrated Rail Plan on Thursday, as reported over the weekend, including on this website.

Today six northern newspapers published by Reach plc call on the Prime Minister to keep his promises and ensure that HS2b and NPR go ahead in full, at a cost of £100bn-plus.

Newcastle’s morning and evening papers, The Journal and Chronicle are joining forces with the Gazette on Teesside, the Hull Daily Mail, Huddersfield Examiner and Manchester Evening News to launch the Trainspotting campaign. The BusinessLive and Yorkshire Live websites are also involved.

‘You made us a promise, Mr Johnson, now don’t you dare try to break it’ headlines today’s Journal.

The Northern Echo, published in Darlington by Newsquest, similarly headlines: ‘Deliver what you promised’, citing ‘furious MPs’. Its own editorial takes the same line: ‘If Mr Johnson “does for” – in the negative sense – both NPR and HS2, he will also derail “levelling up”’.

The view from London, unsurprisingly, is very different. Simon Jenkins, writing in The Guardian, calls the predicted cancellation of HS2b ‘a rare outbreak of sanity in British government rail policy’ and calls the whole project ‘David Cameron’s HS2 vanity railway’. He writes that the substitution of a flurry of other improvements to rail services will enable ‘red wall’ residents to get about sooner and faster, rather than merely getting more swiftly to London some day.

This website too regards transport improvements as a priority element in the levelling up agenda, but in a nuanced way. We have been warning for months that HS2b and NPR were under threat and on July 24 we advised North East leaders to concentrate instead on smaller schemes that have a better chance of actually going ahead.

While high-speed rail for the North East would be part of an ideal world, the priority should be local transport improvements to get people to and from work and college.

The North East has a bus improvement plan for which it wants £804m over five years, of which it is likely to get little or nothing, and meanwhile there is a separate £500m or £600m fund just waiting to be picked up by the region if only its seven council leaders will unite behind a devolution deal, which they are showing no sign of doing.