Ministers face a backlash from “Red Wall” Tory MPs over plans to scrap the extension of the high-speed HS2 rail link from Birmingham to Leeds.
Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, will this week announce a £96 billion package of investment in northern rail networks in an attempt to head off a rebellion by northern Tory MPs who want the high-speed scheme to go ahead.
He will unveil upgrades to the lines between Birmingham and Leeds to reduce journey times, but he will ditch plans to turn the route into a high speed 120-mile “eastern” spur for HS2 to match the western route linking Birmingham and Manchester.
HS2 chiefs say the scheme will massively increase rail capacity beyond any other upgrades, reducing overcrowding and cutting pollution by encouraging motorists, air travellers and freight onto the railways.
But Government sources said the HS2 eastern spur would only save 15 minutes at an added cost of £10 billion and would not be completed until a decade after its £96 billion investment.
The alternative regional schemes also include completing the 33-mile western leg of HS2 from Crewe to Manchester, upgrading the trans-Pennine Manchester-Leeds line to cut journey times by 20 minutes and electrification of the Bolton to Wigan railway.
The schemes, due to be unveiled on Thursday, are intended to make good on Boris Johnson’s “levelling up” pledge despite axing the eastern leg of the 250mph HS2 line.
The future of HS2 still hangs in the balance
While some Red Wall Tory MPs will welcome scrapping the HS2 eastern leg due to its lack of cost benefit, others said it risked losing a once-in-a-lifetime chance to massively boost capacity, cut pollution by encouraging business and drivers onto rail and help level up the North.
Jason McCartney, Tory MP for Colne Valley, said: “It’s always been difficult to make the case for it because it is not about speed, it’s about capacity. I would have preferred it being called The Great Northern Railway and having some of the vision that the Victorians had.
“The environmental benefits haven’t been sold either, in getting freight off the roads. I’ve been really disappointed by the lack of strong Labour support. It needed genuine cross-party support to take communities with us, because it would never have been a project built by just one party.”
Another Red Wall MP said: “After all the extra money that has been spent in the south on getting HS2 to Birmingham, for the North to be left out is not a good thing.”
Jake Berry, the former Northern Powerhouse minister, has warned: “It’s the crucial link for many Red Wall seats and our capital city and is seen by many as central to the Government’s ‘levelling up’ programme.”
‘It is still a vast investment’
In an attempt to counter the criticism, the Government is expected to announce upgrades to a 42-mile stretch of rail from Birmingham to East Midlands Parkway, just south of Nottingham, reducing journey times from 72 to 27 minutes.
The 23-mile link between Sheffield and Leeds will be improved to cut journey times from 42 to 24 minutes, while Leeds will get cash to develop its own tram network as a consolation. Completion of the western spur will cut travel times between Manchester and Birmingham from 90 to 40 minutes.
Ministers argue the package will deliver many of the benefits of faster travel and increased capacity 10 years earlier than HS2 which would not be completed until the 2040s. “It is about pragmatism and speed and it is still a vast investment,” said a source.
The Integrated Rail Plan will restore local routes axed during the Beeching cuts of the 1960s and 1970s including the Don Valley line between Sheffield and Stockbridge in Yorkshire, the Stockport to Ashton line in the north west and the Okehampton to Exeter line.
Some £360 million will be provided to modernise ticketing and rail systems with traditional paper tickets replaced by contactless systems, as in London, while travellers will be able to buy a single ticket recognised by all train companies to reduce the complexity of multiple purchases.