Northern Powerhouse concept could be 'seriously damaged' as HS2 leg set to be scrapped

Commuters at Leeds railway station. Credit: PA

An expected decision to axe plans for key rail schemes in the north of England could mean the concept of the Northern Powerhouse is "seriously damaged", the Mayor of Greater Manchester has said.

Andy Burnham's warning comes as The Department for Transport (DfT) said its Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) will feature £96 billion of investment in the Midlands and the North.

But the plan, to be published on Thursday, is expected to confirm that the eastern leg of HS2 will be scrapped between the East Midlands and Leeds, savings tens of billions of pounds.

There is also frustration that improvements to east-west connections across the North, known as Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR), are likely to involve upgrades to existing infrastructure rather than a new line between Manchester and Leeds.

"If you're going to level up the north of England with the south-east, you have to unlock its full potential and that means bringing forward your best solution, not a cut price solution," Mr Burnham said on ITV's Peston show.

The IRP comes seven years after former chancellor George Osborne launched the Northern Powerhouse initiative, which aims to devolve powers and money from Whitehall to northern city regions.

Mr Burnham said if the IRP doesn't include a "level of connectivity" from Manchester to Leeds, the vision of the Northern Powerhouse is seriously damaged.

But faster train journeys will be delivered up to 10 years sooner than planned, the government has insisted amid anger over an expected decision to axe key schemes.

The Department for Transport (DfT) said its Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) will feature £96 billion of investment in the Midlands and the North.

The DfT insisted it will “transform” journeys to and between the East and West Midlands, Yorkshire and the North West, with benefits delivered “up to 10 years sooner”.

It said in a statement that “the full HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail schemes as originally proposed would not enter service until the early to mid-2040s”.

An artist's impression of how the HS2 station in Leeds would have looked.

One of the aims of the IRP was to increase capacity and have more frequent services “in a way that presented value for money for the taxpayer”, according to the department.

“From London and across the Pennines, the IRP delivers journey times which are the same as, similar to or faster than the original HS2 and Leeds-Manchester proposals, while doubling or trebling capacity and ensuring passengers and consumers benefit from tangible changes more quickly.”

Some £360 million will be allocated to rolling out London-style contactless ticketing across commuter rail networks.

This will feature price caps integrated with local buses and trams.

Boris Johnson made his 'levelling up' pledge in his first speech as prime minister in July 2019. Credit: PA

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “If we are to see levelling up in action now, we must rapidly transform the services that matter to people most.

“That’s why the Integrated Rail Plan will be the biggest transport investment programme in a century, delivering meaningful transport connections for more passengers across the country, more quickly – with both high-speed journeys and better local services, it will ensure no town or city is left behind.”

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: “Throughout the pandemic, we stood by our railway and invested billions to keep the country moving, and we are about to unleash a £96 billion programme of investment that will transform a Victorian network into one befitting a modern country.

“The Integrated Rail Plan is designed to deliver for everyone, much sooner than under previous plans for rail schemes drawn up a decade ago, which no longer fit the way we travel today.

“Our plan will deliver a network that is fit for passengers today and for future generations – a network that works for every community and every passenger, right across the UK.”

The government is expected to say the eastern leg of HS2 will be scrapped between the East Midlands and Leeds.

Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, has accused Mr Johnson of “pulling the whole damn rug from under our feet and ripping up the floor behind him”.

Rail engineer and writer Gareth Dennis told the said that scrapping part of the eastern leg of HS2 is “dismal”, and “the result of Treasury – who does not understand anything about railways or transport – having way too much power”.

He said the “main benefit” of HS2 is creating the ability to move long-distance trains on to new, segregated high-speed tracks, providing more room for stopping services on existing lines.

What is HS2 and why might a part of it be scrapped?

The government-commissioned Oakervee Review warned in 2018 that the final bill for the entire Y-shaped network of HS2 could reach £106 billion.

Phase 1 will run between London and Birmingham, and Phase 2a between Birmingham and Crewe.

Phase 2b was due to extend the line between Crewe and Manchester, and between Birmingham and Leeds, although the later stretch is expected to be curtailed.