Earlier this month saw two new rail franchises awarded to rail companies that serve the North of England. This announcement followed the recently published Transport for the North (TfN) Autumn Report on the Northern Transport Strategy.
The TfN report is a welcome vision for rail users North of the Watford Gap. As a Greater Manchester MP whose constituency is located at the foot of the Pennines, travelling across the region should not be as challenging and as time consuming as it is. The October announcement of the ‘unpausing’ of electrification of the North TransPennine line under pressure from Labour showed that the Government is at last starting to grasp the importance of improved rail connectivity between the northern conurbations. But at what cost?
Network Rail will have to sell billions of pounds worth of assets to deliver on its promise as well as borrowing an extra £700 million from taxpayers. This follows the West Coast Main Line franchise debacle in 2012 which cost taxpayers over £50 million. It therefore begs the question, how long does the Government expect taxpayers to fund their continued failure to deliver railway infrastructure projects?
If we are to have a truly globally competitive economy across the North, we need to clarify certain aspects of the transport infrastructure of the Northern Powerhouse vision. For example, the vision of having a smart ticketing system should be outlined in more detail. I believe that rail users should be able to move across the North with similar ease as rail users do in London and the South East. This leads me to ask what the long-term vision is for TfN to ensure that it delivers for everyone across the North of England?
And then we have high speed rail. The government announced recently that the completion date for HS2 between Crewe and Birmingham has been brought forward by six years but can we be confident that this will be delivered, on time and on budget? The track record of this Government is that they big on announcements but fall short on delivery.
HS2 is vital for unblocking the capacity and connectivity constraints that continue to hold transport services in the North back, but it is also crucial that costs are kept under control. With the work of Lord Adonis’s Infrastructure Commission on-going, and the potential benefits that could be brought by HS3, there cannot be an ‘either-or-strategy’ when it comes to rail transport for the North.
Fundamentally, we need reliable and modern services that are affordable. I want people who live in my constituency to be able to work in Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool or Hull. To deliver one north with one economy, the agenda must be stringent, constantly assessed and provide value for money. As Shadow Rail Minister, I will continue to push for clear objectives and innovative solutions that will ensure that the Northern Transport Strategy becomes a reality.