Northern Powerhouse project put on back burner

Stalybridge Station, signal gantry
Nowhere Fast: the pausing of Trans-Pennine electrification plans is set to see most of Northern England condemned to another decade or so of ancient diesel trains.

The Northern Powerhouse has been dealt a body blow as plans to electrify the Trans-Pennine route have been ‘paused’. As quoted in Hansard, the Secretary of State for Transport, The Right Honourable Patrick McLoughlin MP (Conservative, Derbyshire Dales) stated that:

“Current work on electrification will be paused, because we need to be much more ambitious for that route, building a powerhouse for the north with a fast, high capacity trans-Pennine electric route.”

So, is Network Rail going to electrify the Trans-Pennine line or not? Firstly, when? Secondly, would this be part of the HS3 scheme or a separate one as per the Northern Hub project?

If part of HS3, how do we if HS3 isn’t going to be shelved during the life of this parliament? The worst case scenario could see the Manchester to Leeds electrification – as part of the HS3 project – shelved indefinitely. In other words, more DMUs being tested to destruction; Pacers running into their 50th year of operation; Vivarail’s D78 being used on longer distance services with journey times at Victorian levels.

A Champions League Northern Powerhouse built on a railway firmly in the North West Counties League? Possibly. Especially if the Blackpool North service is delayed due to a succession of fracking-induced earthquakes. Especially when the Stalybridge to Manchester Victoria trains are cancelled due to scarcity of diesel after passing peak oil. This could be best expressed by Shadow Transport Minister and Barnsley East Labour MP Michael Dugher:

“The Government’s total failure to deliver a fit-for-purpose railway has today been completely and damningly exposed.”

Perhaps the government’s heart was never in boosting the North’s railways. Maybe HS2, HS3, and possibly the Northern Hub were just empty pledges. Vote winning pledges. For a good idea as to where their heart lies, remember how long it took to build the Todmorden Curve.

Before privatisation, the 500 yard curve would have been a straightforward job for British Rail. East of the M60 first announced the Todmorden Curve plans in November 2011. It has taken four years to build a 500 yard line and procure suitable rolling stock! Hence its first journeys starting only a month ago.

During the same period, Transport for Greater Manchester has overseen a rapid rise in the Metrolink network. This being the Shaw to Victoria section’s opening in December 2012; its extension to Rochdale the following year; the opening of Ashton’s line from Piccadilly in September 2013. Also the MediaCityUK spur, the East Didsbury line, and the Manchester Airport line.

How many miles of permanent way? Over 50 miles worth. Another thing in common: most of the projects finished ahead of schedule. If TfGM and Metro West Yorkshire ITA oversaw the electrification work between Leeds and Manchester, more of the same speedy delivery?

Perhaps Rail North should be given more teeth. At that point, delaying a strategically important project not only becomes a national issue in terms of the UK’s transport infrastructure. It also becomes a constitutional one for Northern England. One where the overarching influence and centralisation from Whitehall remains an economic barrier.

Should we blame Network Rail? Perhaps not. A lot of good work done by Network Rail under the last Labour government is being undone. Its launch brought confidence and improved safety on our railways – much needed after Railtrack’s stewardship. Are the Conservatives starving Network Rail for possible privatisation, hence its recent figures and costs? Who knows; even so there had been rumours of another rail privatisation: the sale of Major Stations, Network Rail’s seventeen managed railway stations.

A month ago, the Stalybridge and Hyde Labour MP Jonathan Reynolds questioned the Northern Hub project and its fulfilment. How right he was to do so. In response to his question was “2019”. Today, many of us would have learned by nineteen minutes past eight that our Pacer units could see continued service well in to the 2020s. As Little Plum in The Beano would have said “Um fiasco”.

So the question remains: will it be paused? The Conservative MP for Colne Valley Jason McCartney thinks so albeit with grave disappointment.

Or will ‘paused’ be another sobriquet for ‘cancelled’. As has been the case with many a Northern English transport project, very likely (see also The Picc-Vic Project – scrapped under a Labour government in 1976). The Labour MP for Huddersfield Barry Sheerman stated in the Huddersfield Daily Examiner that it was:

“…all pie in the sky and it’s worse than that, it’s a pack of lies. So much for this great Northern Powerhouse dream.”

Between the lines (if you pardon the pun), the government’s lamentable project management skills becomes a constitutional one. Hence the green light for more Crossrail works and the Great Western Main Line’s electrification. Whilst Londoners are enjoying improved access with other main lines, Ashtonians will still be seeing semaphore signals controlled from Ashton Moss.

Therefore, as you would expect with a full-fat Conservative government, the North – South Divide is open for business to hardworking Northerners.

And in rude health, unless we continue to fight for what’s rightfully ours. Even if it means a rail network which is 10 years behind the former Network Southeast region, let alone one that’ll be 50 to 70 years behind five years from now.

*                                 *                                *

I boarded one of Northern Rail’s ‘new’ Class 319 electric trains today from Manchester Airport to Manchester Piccadilly. Though amazed at the ride quality compared with the usual Sprinters and Pacers, the seats weren’t quite as comfortable as the Class 156 Super Sprinters. Even so, its refurbished interior was clean and serviceable; had I saw a need to continue to Liverpool Lime Street, comfortable enough to stay on till the end. Not only that, the seats lined up with the windows properly too. Which is A Good Thing.

Yet, the age of the train was 28 years old and a hand-me-down from Thameslink/First Capital Connect. When you’re waxing lyrical over 28 year old electric trains, in comparison to its similarly aged and battered diesel brethren, this is not a sign of how easily pleased one is. If your experience of train travel is a sardine-tastic diesel train converted from a 46 year old bus model, it is a marked contrast. Like an upgrade from a ZX81 to an Amiga 1200.

S.V., 25 June 2015.

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