Grant Shapps today shrugged off a Tory outcry over axing key rail lines in the North – amid claims passengers will now face ‘many years’ of delays and misery.
Despite repeated commitments from Boris Johnson and other ministers, the Transport Secretary flatly denied that promises had been broken after the HS2 extension and Northern Powerhouse line to Leeds were abandoned.
And he risked inflaming the burgeoning Conservative civil war by accusing critics of ‘completely misleading people’ about what was being proposed.
The bullish stance came as rail experts warned that the decision to upgrade whole stretches of existing track instead of building new lines would by ‘massively disruptive.
Richard Bowker, former chair of the Strategic Rail Authority, said it looked like the government was hoping to save about £40billion, but that might be optimistic and there would be ‘consequences’ for travellers.
‘Upgrading existing railways is costly, complex, uncertain and massively disruptive,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
‘It will mean an extraordinary number of weekend engineering works, service changes and no doubt plenty of dreaded rail replacement buses.
‘It can take many years. And don’t be fooled by the idea that upgrading the existing network is a simple fix to building new lines. It is the precise opposite.’
Grant Shapps today shrugged off a Tory outcry over axing key rail lines in the North – amid claims passengers will now face ‘many years’ of delays and misery
Conservative MPs joined northern leaders in a furious backlash against the long-awaited Integrated Rail Plan, which the PM tried to defend as an ‘ambitious and unparalleled’ overhaul of inter-city links across the North and Midlands.
Mr Johnson was accused of over-selling and under-delivering on his pledge to ‘level up’ the country by his own MPs, some of them in Red Wall seats.
Keir Starmer seized on the meltdown today accusing the government of putting forward a ‘second-class option’.
‘The Government has ripped up those promises and betrayed people in the North. I was in Bradford yesterday and the anger is palpable,’ Sir Keir told BBC Radio 5 Live.
‘People feel very strongly that promises have been made to them and they have just been ripped up. The idea that ‘levelling up’ is anything more than a slogan has absolutely blown away by what happened yesterday.
‘The whole point of HS2 was a high speed line going up including to Leeds. The whole point of the promise of Northern Powerhouse Rail was a new line going from Manchester to Leeds.
‘Trying to upgrade what you have got is a second-class option for the North.’
Tory chairman of the transport select committee Huw Merriman told the chamber: ‘The PM promised that HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail was not an ‘either or’ option. Those in Leeds and Bradford will be forgiven for viewing it today as neither. This is the danger in selling perpetual sunlight and then leaving it to others to explain the arrival of moonlight.’
Asked whether he had broken promises and thought people in the North were ‘stupid’, Mr Johnson retorted: ‘You are talking total rubbish, because we are doubling capacity between Manchester and Leeds. We’re trebling capacity between Liverpool and Manchester.
‘Of course, there are going to be people who, you know, always want everything at once.
‘And there are lots of people who’ll say, ‘look, what we should do is carve huge new railways through virgin territory, smashing through unspoilt countryside and villages, and do it all at once’.
‘The problem with that is those extra high-speed lines take decades and they don’t deliver the commuter benefits that I’m talking about. We will eventually do them.’
Robbie Moore, MP for Keighley in West Yorkshire, said he was ‘bitterly disappointed’ at his constituents being ‘completely short-changed’.
He added: ‘We are one of the most socially deprived parts of the UK and we must get better transport connectivity. I still want to see Northern Powerhouse Rail delivered…We need to do much, much more. Economic prosperity relies on good transport links.’
Fellow Conservative Kevin Hollinrake, MP for Thirsk and Malton, said the impact of the U-turn would be felt for ‘generations’ and that scaling back high-speed rail in the North was a ‘missed opportunity’ for some cities.
Former minister Sir Edward Leigh, the Tory MP for Gainsborough, said the axing of HS2’s eastern spur meant the project was now ‘a white elephant missing a leg’. He added: ‘We were promised it would relieve congestion on the east coast mainline because it was going to go to Leeds.’
Some 30 northern mayors and leaders, including Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham and the Tory leader of Bolton Council, Martyn Cox, wrote to Mr Johnson demanding he put his plans to a free vote in the Commons.
The letter said: ‘Your decision, contrary to your ambition to ‘level-up’ the North, runs the risk of holding back our regional economies and compromising our plans to cut carbon emissions, just days after Cop26.’
Integrated Rail plan documents show that some areas will benefit hugely from the changes – but others will not be doing as well as they had hoped
Mr Burnham branded the revamped plans ‘a Championship option when we needed a Premier League option, because you cannot level up the North of England on second best and I’m afraid this is distinctly second best’.
Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, said: ‘This was the first test of ‘levelling up’ and the government has completely failed and let down everybody in the North.’
Under the revised plans for HS2, the ‘eastern leg’ of the high-speed project will no longer connect Birmingham with Leeds.
It will instead go from Birmingham to East Midlands Parkway, south-west of Nottingham. HS2 trains there will join the existing Midland Main Line, which will be upgraded. The trains will stop at Sheffield, with a future review to take place on how best to take them on to Leeds.
Plans for a new high-speed line linking Leeds with Manchester via Bradford were also axed.
Instead a new line will run from Warrington, which is between Liverpool and Manchester, to the village of Marsden in west Yorkshire. This will go via Manchester.
The TransPennine line from Liverpool to Warrington and Marsden to Leeds will be upgraded.
Ministers argue a mixture of new tracks and upgrades mean it will take trains only four minutes longer between Leeds and Manchester than they would have done if the northern high-speed line was delivered in full. Once complete, eight trains an hour will run between the two cities, up from three. They will take 33 minutes, as opposed to the current 55.
But Northern leaders said the Government’s original plans were as much about capacity as speed.
Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, said: ‘The lack of a full new line across the Pennines will dramatically reduce the capacity and potential for rapid economic growth, in particular in the cities of Leeds and Bradford.’
Andy Bagnall, chief of the Rail Delivery Group, which represents operators, said: ‘While millions of people will benefit from this major investment in boosting connectivity between major cities in the North of England and the Midlands, leaving out key pieces of the jigsaw will inevitably hold back the ability for the railways to power the ‘levelling up’ agenda and the drive to net-zero [carbon emissions].’
Labour’s transport spokesman Jim McMahon said: ‘Boris Johnson was elected to level the playing fields, to make things better for households across the country. We were promised a Northern Powerhouse… but what we have been given today is a great train robbery.’
HS2’s ‘western leg’, which links Birmingham with Manchester, will go ahead in full, along with a spur up to Wigan to connect trains to the West Coast main line and up to Scotland.