Britain’s new rail plan for the north is beyond satire

The author is the Political and Social Editor for the Manchester Evening News

There is a consequence of Yes, minister for pretty much any political contingency, and the UK government’s Integrated Rail Plan announced this week is no exception.

“I have great news for you. . . I have been asked to formulate an integrated national transport policy. At the Prime Minister, ”Minister Jim Hacker informs his permanent secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby in“ The Bed of Nails ”, a 1982 episode of the British political sitcom.

“Aha. And what was the good news?” Comes the reply. Sir Humphrey discovers this obviously poisoned goblet. It will be a decade before anyone sees the political benefit and then the Minister will no longer be there to enjoy it .

Such considerations seem to be at the forefront of government thinking today. This week’s long-awaited rail investment plan in the English provinces appears to be partly aimed at avoiding the political lending delay and seeks quicker profits instead of less favorable longer-term projects.

It claims that promised high-speed plans – HS2 to Leeds and Northern Powerhouse Rail connections connecting cities from east to west – can be realized faster through a puzzle of alternative upgrades. She refrains from emphasizing the imperative behind this claim: savings.

The investment included in the plan is of course welcome. But it has to be weighed against previous promises, previous inaction, the exorbitant sums of money wasted during the pandemic on poor procurement, spending in London and the ability of other countries – including Germany and France – to build modern high-speed networks.

Manchester did better than most of the plan. But even here it is oversold. Ministers claim they won’t be able to deliver new bullet trains through the north until the 2040s.

Why would it take two decades to deliver a new line of 40 miles, a distance shorter than the Central Line of the London Underground?

“The Victorians got there faster and they didn’t have modern equipment,” said Manchester MP Graham Stringer, chairman of the bipartisan urban transport group. “The Treasury just says, ‘You can’t have it now, we’ll spend it in 20 years’.”

To understand the grievance, one must be aware of the number of times the North has watched the Treasury Department pause, cancel, or swap projects believing that they can be got off the ground at little political or economic cost.

Task forces, dating back to the last Labor administration, have been repeatedly set up in central Manchester to investigate one of Britain’s most congested rail bottlenecks, the Castlefield Corridor. In Whitehall, recommendations are piling up from local officials and Network Rail. In 2018, continued inaction due to unwillingness to sign the spending led to the collapse of northern rail links across the region.

What is unusual is that the latest plan brings this problem back on its way, even though it is touted as a century railroad revolution in the north.

But since the immediate economic returns from investing in government bonds in the north appear less than the cases for the Reading or London Bridge expansions (and the daily realities are far from Whitehall), these are the kind of scenarios the north of England has come to see .

One of the most egregious aspects of losing a new high-speed link in Leeds in the recent announcement, while being told there might be some initial money to think about a local public transport network instead, was the implied message that the city’s economy was never both value.

The result was even worse for Bradford, the country’s seventh largest city and arguably the worst-connected city that will fail to achieve either. The issue was raised in the House of Commons this week by MP Huw Merriman, Conservative chairman of the Special Committee on Transport. Merriman added, “This is the danger of selling the eternal sunlight and then leaving it to others to explain the arrival of the moonlight.”

This track plan illustrates two of the characteristic shortcomings of the current administration: a tendency to overstate promises and prioritize short-term tactics over long-term strategies. And since the North’s own legal recommendations and the views of both local authorities and mayors were largely rejected in drawing up the plan, it also reflects a chronic penchant for centralization that would make Sir Humphrey Appleby blush.

“Outside of London there are of course problems,” noted Yes minister Hackers, on the need to incorporate the rest of the country into an integrated transport policy. “Of course,” nods the cabinet secretary. “Probably. But we don’t know anything about them.”

About Vincent Hand

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