What Boris Johnson's high-speed rail commitment means

Tue, July 30th, 2019

Original press release from BusinessLive

Boris Johnson's promise of a new high-speed rail route between Manchester and Leeds has been both welcomed as encouraging and a "major leap", but also criticised as "balderdash" for what it failed to include.

Prime Minister Mr Johnson promised a faster rail route between Leeds and Manchester on Saturday, describing the potential benefits as “colossal.”

But he was accused of ignoring in his first major speech in the North a host of cities hoping to benefit from Northern Powerhouse Rail - a scheme hoped to link HS2 with cities such as Newcastle, Hull and Liverpool, as well as Leeds and Manchester.

It's a scheme 5,000 northern businesses have said would "eradicate" the UK's north-south divide.

Mr Johnson's speech was seen as a bid to woo northern voters ahead of a General Election expected to happen soon.

He spoke at the Museum of Science and Industry, with his pledge to back a new trans-Pennine transport link which would cut journey times on the 36-mile route between Manchester and Leeds from 50 minutes to less than half an hour.

He said: I’m whole-heartedly backing the campaign and setting out how my government will narrow the North-South divide, and unleash the power of our great regions.

“I said during the leadership campaign that I wanted to be the Prime Minister who delivers Northern Powerhouse Rail. By better connecting the North’s great cities we’ll help support millions of families and businesses and level up opportunities for everyone, regardless of where they live.

“So I’m pledging to fund the Leeds to Manchester route – with a deal with Transport for the North agreed by the autumn – to inject more pace into the project."

And his speech may have come as a surprise to some across the north outside of Leeds and Manchester, particularly after he told the Commons on his first day as PM last week that the NPR project is something that should "definitely" happen.

But how did business leaders and prominent city figures react to Mr Johnson's latest speech?

The North West

Liverpool

Bill Addy, chief executive of Liverpool Business Improvement District Company, which represents firms in Liverpool city centre said: "While Mr Johnson's announcement is encouraging, we have heard this before and until we see action I remain sceptical of the Government’s intentions.

"I speak on behalf of our levy paying businesses in expressing my huge disappointment that HS3 is yet again not given the priority it deserves. To truly unlock the economic potential for the whole of the north, it must include Liverpool City Region, with faster links to Hull on the east coast, and up to Newcastle. We are home to Liverpool2 - one of Europe's most advanced container ports, capable of accommodating the world's largest container ships.

"It seems short-sighted of the Government that our region is not central to the NPR plans. The Government has to listen to our argument, and until they do, we must keep banging the drum.”

Paul Cherpeau, CEO of Liverpool Chamber of Commerce, said the commitment was "commendable", but that because connectivity between east and west is a "national embarrassment", the Manchester-Leeds upgrade "does not go far enough".

According to Mr Cherpeau, it's clear there must be a larger commitment to deliver HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail "in its entirety".

He added: “At Liverpool Chamber our business members tell us the current infrastructure is hampering them and that they need better access to markets, goods, and services which NPR will bring to enable them to grow and become more competitive. Connecting all the key economic centres of the North, between Liverpool and Hull, would help the region contribute more significantly to the wider UK economy.

“It is not a case of either or in part - we need the whole programme proposed by Transport for the North in their 2019 Investment Programme. Together with the right level of local investment, this will bring unprecedented opportunities for people and businesses across the whole of the North of England.”

Elsewhere, Metro Mayor for the Liverpool City Region Steve Rotheram said he was perplexed at the news, saying he would only support proposals that "deliver the whole network", including a twin-track line between Liverpool and Manchester.

City Mayor Joe Anderson was far from impressed with the Prime Minister, telling the Liverpool Echo : "It was a sort of evangelical conference where absolutely nothing was said - just a waste of time.

"I went because I was told northern city leaders should go and it was going to be a sort of new dawn for how government works with northern cities like Liverpool - absolute balderdash."

Manchester

Subrahmaniam Krishnan-Harihara, Head of Research at Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce, said: “Since the announcement of the Northern Powerhouse concept in 2014, there has been little action in delivering the connectivity required for realising the vision.

“We warmly welcome the Prime Minister’s pledge to fund the critical link between Manchester and Leeds. Boris Johnson’s backing of the Manchester to Leeds high speed link is a positive early signal from the new government.

“It is, however, important that this is only the very first step in delivering broader connectivity spanning Northern England. The full plans for Northern Powerhouse Rail connecting the major cities in the North are critical in adding capacity and speed to the already stretched rail links in the region.

“The commitment to funding the Manchester to Leeds line should also not be to the exclusion of HS2. Without linking up Northern Powerhouse Rail and HS2, the true economic potential of the Northern regions cannot be realised. If the government is serious about tackling underinvestment in transport infrastructure in the North and rebalancing the UK economy, now is the time to approve and pledge support for the whole of the Strategic Transport Plan prepared earlier this year by Transport for the North.

“Undoubtedly, building the high-speed rail links will take time - so it is absolutely vital that the government proceeds with upgrades to the TransPennine route and local services. Short-term relief is still needed for commuters and businesses.”

The North East

Marianne O'Sullivan, policy adviser at the North East England Chamber of Commerce said: “Connectivity is a crucial issue for the North. Whilst Boris Johnson’s recent announcement of improved rail links between Manchester and Leeds is welcome, we need the Government to commit to the full Northern Powerhouse Rail project which includes Liverpool, Sheffield, Hull and Newcastle.

"Only focusing on the Manchester to Leeds links after years of underinvestment in the North’s infrastructure is simply not enough.

“We need Northern Powerhouse Rail and HS2 in the North along with investment in the East Coast Mainline to improve capacity. If Boris Johnson is truly committed to the Northern Powerhouse strategy and reducing the economic performance gap between London and the rest of the UK then these are the type of major infrastructure projects we need to see.”

Yorkshire

Representing one of the regions included in Mr Johnson's speech, Cllr Judith Blake, West Yorkshire Combined Authority transport lead and Leeds City Council leader, welcomed the news.

She said: “Northern Powerhouse Rail is key to our vision for a modern, reliable transport network that delivers faster journey times, additional capacity and greater reliability and I hope the Government will now work with us to accelerate delivery of this project.

“By integrating Northern Powerhouse Rail, HS2 and an upgraded trans-Pennine line at a transformed Leeds Station we can maximise the positive impact of these investments for the benefit of all our communities.”

Hull

David Hooper, external affairs manager at the Hull and Humber Chamber of Commerce, said Hull would forever be "at a disadvantage" if it's not connected to the rest of the North by a high-speed rail link.

He said investment in rail was essential to ensure passengers can enjoy “a transport network fit for the 21 century", adding: “We are delighted that Boris Johnson has committed to delivering a Northern Powerhouse Rail vision in the early days of his premiership.

“The Chamber feels it is crucial that he recognises and includes Hull as part of that vision.

“It is also good to see that Barry White has come out strongly in support of Hull. When Barry came to visit the Chamber in Hull, he was left in no doubt about the strength of feeling from business leaders and local MPs regarding the importance of this.”

The Northern Powerhouse perspective

Henri Murison, Director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership said: " This is a seminal moment for the North – the entire Northern Powerhouse concept is all about connecting the cities and towns of the North to boost productivity.

"Northern Powerhouse Partnership has been making a strong case for rebalancing our economy and it is heartening to see the first major policy announcement by the new Prime Minister is to benefit the North – matching the commitment of businesses already investing here.

“As well as faster journey times, enhanced capacity and greater frequency, the whole Northern Powerhouse Rail as a network will provide opportunities for our young people to secure the skilled jobs we need to drive productivity and link up the great cities of the North to stimulate economic growth.

"A key part of one of the new lines we need is from Manchester to Bradford through to Leeds, which will benefit those in Liverpool and to Manchester Airport when those sections are also built as well as upgrades so trains can travel on from Leeds to Darlington and Newcastle, as well as wider improvements to for instance get to Sheffield by different routes.”

Boost for 'creaking infrastructure'

Barry White, chief executive at Transport for the North, said: “The fact that the Prime Minister has today firmly committed to delivering a Northern Powerhouse Rail network is a major leap forward for the North. One our business and political leaders have been working tirelessly to secure for several years.

“Just days into his premiership, Boris Johnson is here in the North promising to invest in our creaking infrastructure. Not just the Manchester to Leeds line, but a whole network from Liverpool to Hull, and from Sheffield up to Newcastle, connecting the towns and cities in between.

“As Transport for the North, we’ll work with the new Government to make that a reality as quickly as we can. Any agreement later this year must include funding commitments for work on the whole network, including new lines and significant upgrades, and it must be made jointly with the North, as Boris Johnson promised.

“Following decades of under-investment, our plans are bold, ambitious, and would deliver a radical rail network for our towns and cities.

“With the Prime Minister committing to power up the North and rebalance the economy - investment in Northern Powerhouse Rail as well as a raft of local improvements as part of an infrastructure pipeline must now come forward.”

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