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Rail Infrastructure: North of England

Volume 816: debated on Thursday 18 November 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to improve rail infrastructure in the north of England.

My Lords, this Government will be investing more than £35 billion in rail over the spending review period, including rail enhancements and vital renewals to improve passenger journeys and connectivity across the country, focusing on the Midlands and the north to level up the economy. Furthermore, the Government have today published our independent rail plan, a £96 billion programme to transform services in the Midlands and the north.

My Lords, there has not been a major new rail line in the north of England since the Victorians. The Government promised to change that. Northern Powerhouse Rail was announced seven years ago, and the Government have re-announced it 60 times, but today’s announcement turns its back on that. Does the Minister accept that haphazard dollops of money—a scattergun approach to rail upgrades—will not create a transformation, and that cancelling the HS2 eastern leg is seen in cities such as Sheffield, York, Leeds and Bradford as nothing else than another broken promise?

I advise the noble Baroness to read the documents, which, when I left my office just now, had not actually been published. If she were to look at the integrated rail plan, she would see that it is comprehensive and very well thought through. It sets out exactly how the different pots of money will be used to create the sort of system that delivers for people in the north far sooner than other plans were going to. It also saves the taxpayer billions of pounds.

My Lords, I think I should say that I am very grateful for this further opportunity to speak. If, as it now appears, the Government are backing away from large-scale rail infrastructure projects in the north in favour of less-costly targeted schemes, does this allow other regions, such as the east of England, to dare to hope that the damage they have suffered from the Beeching cuts will be reversed sooner rather than later?

My noble friend is not quite right to say that the Government are backing away from away from large-scale projects, as the IRP—when he is able to read it—will demonstrate to him. However, my noble friend is right that Network Rail has recently completed a study on the west Anglia main line and we are considering its findings. Network Rail is required to conduct similar studies for all parts of the network, and these provide helpful advice to government on potential investments for the future.

Has the Minister seen the front-page banner headline in today’s Yorkshire Post? It says: “PM breaks his own rail pledge.” I want to ask a question about Leeds—and I gladly declare to the House what you might call a family connection. To be practical, can the Minister explain what impact today’s plans are going to have on a station such as Leeds where, as I understand it, HS2 would have had the effect of freeing up platforms for much-needed extra capacity? Without HS2, the existing platforms are going to have to cope with all existing and future demands.

My Lords, it is very difficult to have a sensible discussion on this topic on the basis of front pages of the media. It is impossible that the noble Viscount has been able have a look at the documents which, as we know are being published, possibly as we speak. However, I can assure him that we are well aware that Leeds is an incredibly important station. It is the fourth busiest in the country outside London. Passenger demand has increased by 30% over the last 10 years and the Government are committing to £100 million to look at the options for how to run HS2 services to Leeds, to build capacity and also to finally develop and deliver a mass transit system for Leeds.

I have a little quiz for the Minister. I am sure she will be able to come up with the right answer, but here goes. Which city has half a million people, considerable deprivation, a train service that takes over 20 minutes at just over 30 miles an hour to go nine miles to take people to jobs and connect them to the rest of the country and where 74% of jobseekers give poor transport links as a major barrier to getting on in life? Having named the city—and I am sure the Minister will be able to—perhaps she will, since she is so excited about the integrated rail plan, be able to confirm that that city is going to have its brand- new railway station which will give it the connectivity it needs and deserves.

Bradford—ah, when the noble Baroness has been able to read the documents that are about to be published, she will see in there that we will be electrifying the route from Bradford to Leeds. The journey time will be hugely more reliable—it will take 12 minutes.

The economy of the West Midlands, and Birmingham in particular, has been boosted by the construction and pending completion of the fast new rail service that is HS2. Despite what the Minister has been seeking to say, it appears that Leeds and the local West Yorkshire economy will now be denied the estimated full £54 billion of economic benefits of their HS2 link. Leeds, for example, will be a less attractive venue than it would have been for new and expanding businesses without its promised high-speed rail links. Northern Powerhouse Rail delivered in full was also set to deliver £22 billion for northern economies, including Bradford, by 2060, according to a report by Mott MacDonald. What is the Government’s estimate of the loss of projected economic benefits to Leeds and the West Yorkshire economy of the decision to backtrack on previous promises on the HS2 high-speed rail link to Leeds and on full delivery of Northern Powerhouse Rail? What is the loss of those economic benefits that were projected?

As the noble Lord will see when he gets to read the documents that are being published today, a huge number of projects are being brought together, and so many of those are around Leeds. It is the case that the core part of Northern Powerhouse Rail will be constructed, and that will provide those fast links through to Manchester. It is the case that there will be significant upgrades to the east coast main line and, of course, there will be electrification of the Midlands main line. Combining that with the construction of a mass transit system, I think, somehow, that Leeds is going to be all right.

My Lords, I look forward to reading today’s document, and I hope it is good news for the north and the Midlands. I appreciate that I am a lone voice on this matter but, given that HS2 has been the disaster that everybody thought it would be, is doing huge damage to the environment, is going to bring little benefit to anybody and is costing now, or is supposed to cost, £150 billion and counting, could the Government not consider—if they cannot scrap it, which I think they should, even though it has cost money already—pruning it back seriously as quickly as possible and using the money saved and the expertise gained to look after railways in the West Midlands and the north of England?

I suppose we are doing a small amount of what would make my noble friend happy. We have looked at the different options. I would be the first person to stand there and warmly welcome a brand-new, big, expensive, shiny rail system— I love them. However, sometimes they take many decades to build, and they can be very expensive, and sometimes they just fly by various communities. What we have done is look at the amount of money that we have, the options that we have and the opportunities that we have to join up many more of the communities that were being missed out by previous plans. I am sure when we come back to discuss the integrated rail plan, we can go into that in more detail.

Can the Minister confirm that upgrading an existing Victorian railway as opposed to building a brand-new railway is not a pain-free option? It will lead inevitably to weekend closures, disruptions to services, replacement bus services and all the paraphernalia of building a railway while you are trying to run one at the same time. How long will this disruption continue? Can the Minister also please tell us why it takes us far longer to build high-speed railways in this country compared with all our competitor countries and longer even than it took the Victorians who built them with picks and shovels?

The noble Lord is quite right to highlight the disruption caused by construction. It is the case, whether you are upgrading the east coast main line or, indeed, constructing a brand-new, HS2-type railway that there is disruption. We try to keep the disruption to the minimum. Obviously, when the RNEP is published and all of the programme is set out, we will be able to see how long each element of the plan is going to take and when the disruption will happen. Of course, the Government will try to minimise that as much as possible.