North East Devolution and Levelling Up

Why North East should forget high-speed rail and get on with local transport improvements

First published on November 19. Updated on December 23

A Green councillor in Sheffield has said what appeared to be the unsayable for a northern politician and announced that he ‘won’t shed a tear’ at the axing of the eastern leg of High Speed Rail (HS2b) between Birmingham and Leeds.

Until now hardly a voice in support of the government’s Integrated Rail Pan (IRP) has been heard in the north during the weeks since its publication dashed the hopes of politicians and business leaders that Newcastle and Darlington would be linked to the national high-speed network via York and Leeds, as well as to an upgraded Manchester-Leeds route – Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR).

According to a report presented by the managing director of Transport North East to the region’s Joint Transport Committee (JTC) this week: ‘The outcome of the IRP for the region is very disappointing as the North East is no longer proposed to be connected to the UK’s future high speed rail network. The IRP also rules out government investment in the Leamside Line as a means of adding capacity to the ECML (East Coast Main Line)’.

The report goes on: ‘We do not accept the IRP’s analysis that only 7 or 8 paths [trains per hour] are required on the ECML in our region. This would meet the short-term need but does not allow for any future growth in services – passenger or freight – and it does not improve the resilience of the route. We will therefore continue to make the case to the government for future investment’.

As a separate political argument fuelling anger at the government’s decision, it is being said that the Prime Minister is breaking a promise in not going ahead with the full HS2 scheme or the full upgrading of NPR. That may be true, and in the view of this website the Prime Minister’s record of untrustworthiness makes him unfit for office. But that is a different matter.

Now, according to the The Star in Sheffield, that city’s executive member for transport, Councillor Douglas Johnson, has broken ranks with most northern politicians and said: ‘Personally, I will shed no tears over the cancellation of the HS2 East link. It’s hugely expensive, hugely destructive and does not meet the real transport needs of millions of people across Sheffield and South Yorkshire’. Instead, argued Councillor Johnson, the focus should be on new and improved local services.

The Green councillor from Sheffield makes an odd bedfellow on this subject with Tees Valley’s Tory Mayor, Ben Houchen, who has called HS2 a waste of money and, like Councillor Johnson, has said the focus should be on improving regional rail travel instead. According to TeessideLive: ‘Ben Houchen claims that he could revolutionise public transport if he was given just 1% of the funding budget for HS2.’

This website too, while not going so far as to welcome the fact that the North East will not be linked to the high-speed network – though it will benefit from some reductions in journey times and a limited increase in capacity on the ECML (see below) – argues that now the government’s decision has been made the priority should be to get on with improving local transport. To that extent it agrees with the Green councillor and the Conservative mayor.

Analysis of the IRP published on this site on November 18 and November 19 shows that:

  • The IRP as published will reduce journey times between Newcastle and London by up to 24 minutes compared with 32 minutes under the original plan for HS2b and NPR; by 39 minutes instead of 89 minutes between Newcastle and Birmingham; by 22 minutes instead of 36 minutes between Newcastle and Manchester; and by five minutes instead of seven minutes between Newcastle and Leeds.
  • The IRP will allow for up to eight passenger trains per hour in each direction between Newcastle and York, including two travelling on to Manchester, in place of the present six and the nine demanded by North East leaders – a demand found by standard industry analysis to be unviable. And the trains could have three extra carriages and 40% more seats.

Some of these benefits will be delivered, according to the IRP, by 2030 and all by 2035, compared with the early 2040s if the full scheme were built in one go, and according to the Northern Powerhouse Partnership will cost £104.7bn compared with £140.8bn for the full scheme as originally promised – a saving of £36.1bn.

Do the government’s critics in the North East really think it is worth waiting an extra 5-10 years and spending an extra £36.1bn for the sake of cutting an extra eight minutes off journeys from Newcastle to London, 50 minutes to Birmingham, 14 minutes to Manchester and two minutes to Leeds, and for one more extra train per hour which standard analysis suggests will not be viable?

Viewed in that light, the IRP seems a sensible plan which the North East, if not Manchester, Leeds and their hinterlands, can get behind. The North East should now focus on two priorities.

One is the re-opening of local rail lines led, certainly, by the Leamside Line, which links Tursdale in County Durham to the Tyne & Wear Metro at Pelaw. But this should not be a priority because of it would provide extra capacity on the ECML – though that would be an added advantage – but more importantly because it could enhance regional links. It could facilitate a new Metro loop via Washington and Sunderland and link to the Stillington Line from Ferryhill to Middlesbrough, providing a new Tyne-Wear-Tees connection and playing an important part in levelling up the region by connecting people in County Durham with new employment, education and leisure opportunities. A third future possibility is the reopening of the Weardale Railway, connecting Eastgate to Tees Valley via Bishop Auckland.

The other priority is the North East bus service improvement plan, for which the region wants £804m over three years, coupled with bus franchising to give more public control over fares and services than the more limited enhanced partnership now planned between the JTC and the bus companies.

The trouble is that the region would be much better placed to receive government support and funding for all these initiatives if it would only do a devolution deal covering all seven local authorities. At the moment, though, there is still no sign of that happening. Perhaps it will when the Levelling Up White Paper is published, as is now expected following the latest delay, early in 2022. Without a deal these hopes all look like nigh-impossible dreams.