In 2015 we were promised hoverboards, but Stalybridge had Pacer units instead (Shapps 4′ 8″ Remix)

In a professional capacity, Preston has become my second home. I know almost every nook and cranny of its railway station. On some occasions I hope for a slack connection, so I could do a bit of spotting between trains. In the last six months, I have seen many a passing Pendolino, many a diesel, electric and bi-mode unit, and the odd goods train.

The inner child in me yearns for Class 86s with Mark III coaches. Also the odd loco change from diesel to electric on The European. More than anything, I hoped the Advanced Passenger Train in its original form had a better innings.

Nearly 40 years after the APT entered revenue-earning service, another Northern English Rail Dream evaporated. The dream of fast trains from Britain’s most inaccessible large city. Being able to get from Leeds and Sheffield to London in less than two hours. Not to mention most of the original Northern Powerhouse Rail.

Instead of a fast railway line that would take Northern England into the 21st century, the North of England is being offered a late-20th century solution. A crumb. A microscopic one. A crumb that could be Northern England’s Scottish Poll Tax moment.

Instead, the best they could give us is partial electrification of the Standedge line with a diesel section (or battery section in future years?) from Marsden to Stalybridge. With the exorbitant ticket prices on this section, revenues should have covered electrification across the whole route. The proud boast by the DfT is a cut in journey times from Manchester to Leeds to 33 minutes – also downsized from the original plan of 29 minute journey times.

The problem is, North of England needs HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail in its full fat form well and truly before 2045. If anything, it needs to be ready for quarter to nine on the 12 December 2021, though that is an impossibility. At worst, we have is a rehash of Grayling’s future of bi-mode trains and gaps in electrified sections, because the overhead line equipment would spoil the scenery.

As for HS2, we understand that Manchester may get its High Speed link, at the expense with Leeds and Sheffield passengers. Manchester wont be getting its lower level HS2 station; it’ll be built on ‘stilts’ on the side of platform 1 of Manchester Piccadilly station – which inhibits future growth of the High Speed network. There is, in the pipeline, plans for a new High Speed line between Warrington and Marsden, though no clear route as yet.

What now?

Many critics see Shapps’ NPR/HS2 as a downsized version of TfN’s plans. This is not the first time where the Palace of Westminster has overruled Northern England’s devolved institutions. Probably as far back as the Picc-Vic Project under a Labour government. Also the imposition of Pacer units instead of the superior Class 210 DEMU units. 40 years on from their arrival, we finally got DEMUs in Class 769 and Class 800 bi-mode trains. You could also add the DfT’s imposition of a PM peak to Greater Manchester’s trains in 2016.

As many of Northern England’s rail projects are based on a Westminster Permitting basis, its UEFA Champions League solutions are snubbed in favour of Westminster’s Skybet Championship solutions. Like ordering a cardboard cutout of Cristiano Ronaldo from Wish.com and ending up with one of Christopher Biggins.

What remains to be seen is how this will affect subsequent elections. One of the Conservatives’ favourite double acts (Smoke and Mirrors) may return to the fore with a convenient distraction.

On the other hand, the Red Wall could be restored, though this depends on the Red Wall’s perception of Sir Keir Starmer instead of whether or not the next Labour candidate could be a good M.P. or Councillor. If the cancellation of the eastern leg of HS2 proves to be Northern England’s Scottish Poll Tax Moment, could the Northern Independence Party tempt Red Wall voters? Or the new Breakthrough and Yorkshire parties?

A Tory’s gotta Tory

Once again, Northern Powerhouse Rail is Yet Another Broken Tory promise. One that can be seen as the Tories’ continued othering of the North. In all honesty, I still had to think “I will believe when I see it” when they said the Pacer units were retired. I was right to express the same pessimism with NPR and HS2. I am not sure if they would give Andy Burnham the right amount of funding for Greater Manchester’s future franchised bus network. To be honest, I wouldn’t trust the PM with my best drawing pens, never mind the economic future of Northern England.

The cancellation of most of Northern Powerhouse Rail’s redeeming features isn’t just an insult to the North of England. It is an affirmation that they see private motoring and domestic air travel as the default option for many travellers – even more so after COP 26 in Glasgow. That they are happy with world-beating inflation-busting rail fares (oh and don’t get me started on bus fares outside Greater London) also speaks volumes about their real priorities.

Northern Powerhouse Rail and High Speed Two weren’t only about faster trains. Another part of the premise is capacity – freeing track paths for better services on present-day InterCity and Provincial routes – and goods trains. Also more seats on key corridors and at journey times that would free up the M62. For now, the traffic jams and packed-out slow trains to Hull will be with us for some time.

S.V., 19 November 2021.

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