Saskia Murphy trains her
eyes on a letdown for
the North and levelling up

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All we want for Christmas is decent public transport. We’ve been asking for it for donkey’s years, but so far a succession of stingy Santa Clauses and their elves (first Cameron and Osborne, then May and Hammond, and now Johnson and Sunak) have delivered nothing for the North except empty promises.

Last week our dreams of high speed, seamless travel across the region were cut to ribbons as the government announced plans to scale back its Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) project.

The original plan was for a new high speed line running east-west across the north, connecting Manchester with Leeds. Paired with upgrades and new lines linking other cities such as Liverpool, Bradford, Sheffield and Newcastle, the project was originally designed to increase rail capacity and reduce journey times across the North.

But on Thursday the government finally released its much-delayed integrated rail plan spelling out what it will build.

And of course it dropped a clanger. The expected new line from Manchester to Leeds – which would have opened up a new direct route from Liverpool to Leeds – has been scrapped. Instead, the existing transpennine service, loathed by commuters, will be upgraded. More carriages, possibly faster trains, but no shiny new line to separate intercity journeys from local stopping trains; nothing to tackle the overcrowding and reliability problems that blight public transport in the North; and no underground platforms for Manchester Piccadilly. So much for levelling up.

There is a promise of a new high speed line between Warrington and Marsden. But the rest of the news is a bitter disappointment.

Manchester and Leeds are just 44 miles apart, but those who regularly travel between the two cities on public transport could tell tales that would make a London commuter’s toes curl. Cancellations, delays and a creaky old service that is just too slow are a regular source of misery for those who dare attempt the journey, while the M62 bears the scars of congestion left by those who just can’t face the perils of the train.

And this isn’t just about Manchester and Leeds. Other towns and cities will lose out as a result of the government’s plans to scale back the northern leg of the project. Bradford is Britain’s seventh biggest city, but a national data analysis of rail journeys shows it is the worst connected major city in the UK.

According to campaigners it was quicker to travel from Bradford on steam trains than it is today. A journey to Bradford from Leeds takes about 20 minutes, two minutes longer than it took in 1910. The Edwardians could get on a train from Bradford to Wakefield and it would take 30 minutes, compared to today’s 48 minute journey.

The NPR project was designed to allow the northern economy to operate on a better level. But if a new line between two of the North’s most important cities isn’t part of the plan, the government is standing in the way of the region’s economic growth – a bizarre tactic considering a central part of the government’s narrative has been its levelling up agenda. It will be interesting to see how the news fares with northern Tory voters at the next general election.

The NPR project should have been an opportunity for the North to thrive in the coming decades. But once again, the government has shown where its loyalties lie.

Saskia Murphy is a Manchester-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @SaskiaMurphy

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