Heathrow vote prioritised over the north

Liverpool city region mayor Steve Rotheram criticises transport minister as he cancels a speech in Manchester to attend a vote on Heathrow airport

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Chris Grayling’s decision to pull out of a speech in Manchester today showed that “once again it appears that transport in the south comes before transport in the north”, according to Steve Rotheram, mayor of the Liverpool city-region.

The transport secretary had been due to speak at a transport conference in Manchester on Monday afternoon but withdrew because he said he had to be at Westminster for the vote on Heathrow Airport expansion.

Instead, he sent his deputy Baroness Sugg, parliamentary under-secretary of state for transport, who was forced not only to apologise for her boss’s absence but also for rail chaos in the north, which could go on until November.

This was not good enough for Rotheram. Also speaking at the Northern Transport Summit, he said he was “disappointed” by Grayling’s absence and warned that “the north’s railways are on the cusp of a great crisis”.

The fiasco over Northern Rail’s new timetabling “simply can’t be allowed to continue, and certainly cannot be allowed to continue until November”, said Rotheram.

He added his voice to the many who have said a solution to the problem of widespread cancellation and lateness of trains would have been found had the problem taken place in London. And he called on Northern to “set out more ambitious plans” for ending the crisis.

Rotheram acknowledged the north’s rail system had received some valuable investment in the four years since then Chancellor George Osborne’s Manchester speech insisting that northern cities should be better connected.

Rotheram said he would give “credit where it’s due” for the Orsdall Chord, linking Manchester’s central train stations, and development at Lime Street. But journey times in the north are still twice as long as in the south, he said this is “unacceptable” and things need to change.

At the conference, organised by property and regeneration website Place North West and Transport for the North, Rotheram said that the new timetabling would actually have improved services if it had been properly implemented.

“We need this scheme to go ahead. The north needs this. The north will get this.”

He acknowledged that Northern had made some progress on a compensation package for season ticket holders but said the rail company must do more to address the needs of businesses and the visitor attraction sector.

But he reserved his full ire for Network Rail, which he said had an opaque structure and was not fit for service. “It needs to be overhauled”, he said.

Rotheram called on Grayling to fix the rail crisis, and for further devolution – both for rail routes and the powers held by Transport for the North.

Transport for the North was established in April this year and brings together public and private sector representatives to promote the case for investment in the area. But although it has been widely greeted as a necessary first step in devolution, Rotheram called for it to be given more statutory powers.

Earlier, Tim Wood, Transport for the North’s Northern Powerhouse Rail director, said he was “absolutely sure there will be a sizeable sum” available to fund the Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) scheme he was promoting.

Also dubbed HS3, NPR would be a massive scheme to create high speed rail connections between the north’s main cities and Manchester Airport, as well as linking to the controversial HS2 scheme now underway.

According to Wood, only around 9,000 people can currently reach four or more of the main economic centres of the north within an hour. NPR, he said, would raise this number to 1.3 million, bringing huge economic benefits and job creation as people would increasingly be able to live in one area and travel to another for work.

Wood said he was working closely on the scheme’s development with the Department of Transport, which he insisted was being “open, transparent and collaborative”.

Transport for the North is aiming to complete the strategic outline business case by the end of the year, with construction of the £30-£35 billion scheme beginning in 2024, “in lockstep with Crossrail 2”, the east-west London scheme, according to Wood.

“We need this scheme to go ahead. The north needs this. The north will get this,” said Wood.

Sugg told the audience that the north has been neglected but would receive £13 billion investment by 2020. Her department put out a press release at the same time saying that between now and 2021, it will be investing £831 per head on road and rail upgrades in the North East, North West and Yorkshire and the Humber – more than £30 more per head than London and the south at £799.

Sugg herself had to dash back to London for the Heathrow vote, meaning there was no time for her to be questioned on these figures. But Luke Raikes, senior research fellow at the IPPR North thinktank, was quick to claim that the government “continues to obscure the facts behind regional transport investment”.

He said: “Only by focusing on a narrow selection of transport spending are they able to claim that the north will receive more.

“The full picture shows that London will receive 2.6 times more per capita spending than the north. The government continues to dispute these figures rather than acting on them but the north has been promised investment and the transport secretary must now follow through.

“This is yet more evidence that central government can’t be trusted to run the north’s railways. The government now needs to devolve much more power to Transport for the North.”

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