New prime minister Boris Johnson has backed plans for a new trans-Pennine rail route between Manchester and Leeds as he set out a domestic agenda to “turbo-charge regional growth and prosperity.”
But while cautiously welcomed by the railway industry and regional politicians, the Labour Party dismissed the announcement as a rehashed failed promise that didn’t go far enough to tackle the north-south divide.
In a speech in Manchester, the new PM pledged new intercity rail routes, with Manchester to Leeds as the first step, saying: “I want to be the PM who does with Northern Powerhouse Rail what we did with Crossrail in London. And I am going to deliver on my commitment to that vision with a pledge to fund the Leeds to Manchester route. It will be up to local people and us to come to an agreement on the exact proposal they want, but I have tasked officials to accelerate their work on these plans so that we are ready to do a deal in the autumn.”
The new route is expected to cut journey times significantly and provide additional capacity for people across the region, with detailed plans published this autumn, following the review into HS2. However, the Labour Party described the news as a rehash of previously failed promises and described the prime minister having to ask people to applaud his announcement as “embarrassing.”
Shadow transport minister Rachael Maskell said: “It’s quite clear the northern audience know that it’s not even a half measure and not worth clapping. Council leaders, mayors, businesses and Transport for the North all want Labour’s Crossrail for the north from Liverpool to Hull and up to the north east, as we promised in our last manifesto, to truly unleash the economic potential of the north.
“This is sadly once again another Tory prime minister coming to the north with nothing new. There is no timeline, no linking of northern towns, just more vague promise of a skeleton line and a rehash of the insulting level of investment for the region that Theresa May tried and failed to bribe Labour MPs with a few months ago. Labour will bring proper investment to the north, putting in vital infrastructure to attract the economic investment for northern towns and cities. A properly integrated rail system can only be delivered under Labour’s publicly owned rail service not the fragmented system this government backs.”
Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester and Dan Jarvis, mayor of the Sheffield city region, both gave a guarded welcome to the prime minister’s announcement, but made their concerns clear. Burnham said: “I remember George Osborne coming here five years ago and making a very similar announcement. Since then, rail services have been in reverse. Northern Powerhouse Rail is more than Manchester-Leeds. It is about connecting the whole north, and it needs to be a new line rather than an upgrade.”
Jarvis said: “What the north really needs is a sustained programme of investment to level regional inequalities and unlock our huge potential. But we need investment to deliver the whole of the Northern Powerhouse route and Sheffield city region’s Integrated rail plan. We now need to see action, not just words.”
Sir John Armitt, chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, said: “Travellers in the north have been crying out for a serious upgrade to their intercity rail network, as the commission first recommended in 2016. The PM's announcement must be integrated with plans for HS2 and matched with devolved funding and powers for city leaders in the north, as set out in our National Infrastructure Assessment."
Darren Caplan, chief executive of the Railway Industry Association (RIA), welcomed the new PM’s announcement, but stressed that this shouldn’t be at the expense of other planned rail schemes such as HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail. He said: “We hope the prime minister will accelerate the delivery of these major schemes, benefiting not only the north, important though that is, but also the entire country, as it seeks to build the rail infrastructure it needs in the uncertain months and years ahead.”