George Osborne’s support for ‘HS3’ is a welcome development. The neglect of our railways in the North is wrong and it must end

One of my current indulgences is to explore parts of the regional rail network. Although usually associated in the minds of many with the network in London and the South East, I have in fact spent most of my working life with substantial regional responsibilities from the far West of England, to the North East, Yorkshire and East Anglia. I have lived less than one third of my 67 years in the South East. I have by osmosis become an English Provincial – not quite a Yorkshireman, but almost. As I pen this article I can see the helicopter overhead carrying the camera crew that will today track Le Tour de France through God’s Own County on Stage 2 between York and Sheffield. I feel a quasi nationalistic pride as Yorkshire is depicted to a worldwide audience in all its architectural and scenic splendour.

Although not a northerner and in fact a very strong Londonphile, I do feel an affinity with the English regions. Like many in the North I believe there is a deep North-South divide in the way our country is run. I think that it is unhealthy for our democracy and that if positive steps are not taken to correct it, the separatist movement that we have seen in Scotland will extend to the North. I think it is divisive and damaging that across the entire Metropolitan areas of South and West Yorkshire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside there are now fewer than 10 Conservative MPs and on current trends most could lose their seats next year. Lose your foothold, where once it was strong, and it may never be recovered. When I moved to York in 1987 we had a Tory MP. In 2010 the Party scraped a quarter of the vote.

I think it is troubling that Tory representation is as sparse in Manchester and Leeds as are Labour voters in Maidstone or Tonbridge Wells. Yet Labour currently has more claims to be a national party. At least it still has significant representation in all the regions and nations of the UK. Our UK democracy cannot survive in its present form if the party that calls itself Unionist has only derisory representation in Scotland, Wales and the urban North.

So it was that I found myself applauding the remarks of George Osborne following his advocacy of HS3. Although headlined as “a High Speed Railway between Manchester and Leeds” in a Today Programme interview I was delighted to hear him refer to the whole Trans-Pennine axis from Liverpool to Hull. In so doing he pointed to the need to create a dynamic economic power house of a region in its own right. Readers of my occasional comment columns in Passenger Transport will know that I have argued this point very strongly before. In fact my opposition to HS2 has been based on a belief that the North South divide will be made worse (PT066).

My HS2 would be George Osborne’s HS3. Perhaps now that his HS2 to Birmingham seems to be more or less a done deal I could pragmatically float the idea, following Osborne’s logic about providing connections between the Northern cities, that the route from England’s second city should bifurcate not in the West Midlands, but at Sheffield and use the Woodhead alignment to gain Manchester. Thus with HS2 and HS3 in place, all the major Northern Cities would be interconnected as well as linked to Birmingham and London. It would be cheaper to build too.

It has been said that George Osborne is a political chancellor of the exchequer. In other words the interests of his Party are always uppermost in his mind. Certainly this could explain his advocacy of HS3. The fact that he too is a Northern MP (there courtesy of Neil Hamilton’s brown envelope disgrace and Martin Bell’s decision to serve only one term as the independent MP for Tatton) is undoubtedly also a factor. Thank goodness he is, because it has given him the perspective that is so desperately lacking in too much of our political and economic public life.

The problem is that HS2 and 3 represent jam tomorrow. I have a high opinion of Alex Hynes and the team running Northern Rail. They do a great job in trying circumstances but the reality of much of today’s railway in the North of England is that many parts of it are second rate. I have made recent visits to a number of routes in the north. Anticipating a good day’s walk along the beach from Saltburn recently I was aghast to find a Pacer unit was the best offering from my High Speed connection at Darlington. It was so uncomfortable that I abandoned the journey at Redcar with a splitting headache. The following week I suffered a similar experience in changing trains at Stalybridge. Thank goodness I was only going to Salford and not on to Wigan and Southport, the ultimate destination of the connecting train.

Attending the funeral of a much revered former colleague whose final resting place was Rotherham, a metropolitan borough with a recorded 2011 population of over 250,000, I was amazed to discover that the rolling stock on offer after a High Speed trip via either Doncaster or Sheffield, was a Pacer connection. Trips from York to Blackpool, Mytholmroyd to Leeds, and Huddersfield to Slaithwaite also proved to be a shock to the system.

The (literally) most jarring aspect of these experiences is that these journeys could have been made with the same rolling stock in the 1980s. My first exposures to Pacers came in 1987 when the whole fleet was subject to gearbox problems, occasioned by the hard ride and poor suspension of the units. Designed and built to a low cost budget imposed by PTEs and governments scandalised by what they saw as the high cost of trains compared with buses, the fact that these trains are still operating over vast swathes of the North of England is testament to the lack of priority afforded to it and has itself become a scandal.

This network looks like a Second Class Railway for Second Class People. It has to change and quickly. It is wrong, unfair and ultimately, self defeating for the politicians who allow it to continue.

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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