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London's £19bn Elizabeth line opens today - but where's the Crossrail for the North?

Today is a big day for rail, London’s £19bn Crossrail.

Four years late and £4bn over budget, more than 70 miles of train lines and 10 new stations will span London and the South East from Reading and Heathrow in the west, through 42km of new tunnels under central London, to Shenfield and Abbey Wood in the South East. Its first passengers will board today, initially taking journeys between Paddington and Abbey Wood.

Crossrail is a welcome development. The densely populated capital calls for more links to new housing, a jobs boost and greater transport capacity. East-west links have long been a problem across the country, and Crossrail is London's remedy.

READ MORE: North’s own rail plan would have meant faster journeys and more trains, admits government - but it was too expensive

But London does not have the monopoly on chronic housing deficit and capacity shortage on public transport. Nor is it the only city with ambition. Manchester has areas of dense population and a housing crisis in the style of London’s. It's also a haven for start-ups and the fastest growing tech city in Europe, with the highest graduate retention outside the capital. And yet its rail links, and those of cities across the North, are often old, slow, overcrowded and unreliable.

Which is why the Government’s full steam ahead attitude to an over-budget Crossrail - and Boris Johnson’s dispatch last week that a £30bn Crossrail 2 is in his sights - might be tough to take for passengers in the North who have been forced to endure creaking infrastructure and lousy timetables for years, compounded by derailed plans for the vital east-west links of Northern Powerhouse Rail, the eastern leg of HS2, and an underground station at Piccadilly.

Boris Johnson struggled to say when Manchester's central railway would finally be unclogged as he spoke to reporters about his rail plans (Manchester Evening News)

All of which could have paved the way for a ‘Crossrail for the North’, providing the vital capacity needed to take cars and freight off the roads in a step toward meeting net zero targets.

But hold your Pacers. This week, a press release dropped. Over the Queens’ Platinum Jubilee Bank Holiday, Network Rail will complete a ‘major signalling overhaul’ in Manchester, helping more trains ‘run on time’ between Manchester and Stalybridge. This ‘colossal’ upgrade, will see 29 new signals installed. It’s part of a bigger project to replace nearly 2,500 miles of track and add lots of cables.

In turn it’s a component of the Transpennine Route Upgrade, originally promised for completion in December 2018 in former Chancellor George Osborne’s Powerhouse pledge (also featuring upgrades to Manchester Piccadilly and Oxford Road stations which never materialised) but somehow now amalgamated into the cut-price Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR).

The original £36bn NPR was a new 40-mile high speed line connecting east to west between Manchester and Leeds via Bradford, once labelled a 'priority' by Boris Johnson. But this plan, which would have allowed for more hourly trains and shorter journeys on almost every key northern route, was rejected on cost grounds, even though no detailed analysis of potential long term benefits had been carried out. Analysis here showed it could have delivered more than £14bn by 2060 and 74,000 new jobs by helping the North operate as a 'single economic unit'.

It was downgraded in Grant Shapps' Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) in November last year, shaving £18bn - and the entire cities of Hull and Bradford - off the scheme. Passengers here were offered instead a new line from Warrington to Marsden tacked onto the existing Transpennine line, which would finally be upgraded after years of delays to that programme.

At the same time, the eastern branch of HS2, connecting the East Midlands and Leeds, was cut. This means passengers travelling from Leeds to London will come via Manchester, adding to its already congested tracks.

Also hitting the buffers was an underground station at Manchester Piccadilly. The Government believes that would cost £5bn more than their preferred surface station and would provide little economic benefit in return, as well as delaying HS2 coming to the city. Leaders here have warned an overground station at Piccadilly will be full 'from day one', limiting the potential for future rail expansion offered by going underground. They also say the resulting viaducts needed to carry HS2 through Ardwick and into Manchester - and to take NPR passengers further north - will 'sever' east Manchester and blight prime development land.

These are just the major projects - and before you you even touch on the issue of rolling stock.

In March, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced a £84m 'short-term' fix to fund longer platforms, upgraded trackside equipment and bigger depots in the North West. The £145m Hope Valley Scheme to improve sections of the railway between Manchester and Sheffield - originally due for completion in 2018 - will start later this month.

Back to the capital, and the £1.6bn Old Oak Common will be a new 850-metre ‘super-hub’ for HS2 in West London. Set to be the ‘best connected and largest new railway station ever built in the UK’, it will house no fewer than 14 platforms, with six high-speed ones underground and eight conventional ones above ground, four of which will serve Crossrail. And no unsightly viaducts here; twin tunnels will take high speed trains east to the southern terminus at Euston and west to the outskirts of London.

Experts say around £4bn of Crossrail's budget was spent on building back skills that had been lost from the country - and argue nations like Germany might look to capitalise on those skills by moving the workforce to projects in other regions.

Boris Johnson discusses the Integrated Rail Plan with reporters on a train from Manchester to Warrington (Manchester Evening News)

'It's the Government saying there's no value in investing in Manchester'

Neil Holm, in charge of Network Rail's TransPennine Upgrade, said this week that the ‘major investment’ in signalling starting in Manchester next month would unlock more reliable journeys and the ‘potential’ for faster trains in the future. But critics of the IRP point to this word ‘potential’ - and are reminded of the Government’s reluctance to help Greater Manchester and other northern cities to fulfil it.

Gareth Dennis, railway engineer and expert, says: “Boris is now saying we need a Crossrail 2, and yeah, we probably do but that will be another £30bn. Where’s that money and why isn’t it being spent in Manchester and Leeds? There is no justification for the full Northern Powerhouse Rail not being built. It’s difficult to imagine that this is not just contempt. It’s hard to describe it as anything else.

“It’s the Government saying there is no value in investing in Manchester, there is no value in investing in the populations in regions outside the M25. That’s the only conclusion I can come to. In other countries, cities are empowered to make these decisions themselves, in Britain the Government is clearly making the case that Manchester is not worth investing in.

“Manchester is one of the Europe’s biggest cities and yet there is no Metro connection, no high speed rail, and it’s all an active choice made by Westminster. There’s not a single argument for Crossrail that isn’t applicable for Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.”

On an underground HS2 station at Piccadilly, cancelled amid apparently unsubstantiated claims it will cost £5bn more than overground one - he adds: “An underground station would maximise the benefit and minimise the impact on the city.

“Experts can’t find any justification for this £5bn figure, it doesn’t make sense. Is it the Government justifying, again, why they aren’t doing the right thing for Manchester?”

'Are they levelling up or not?'

Manchester leaders are asking the same question. After five years of being promised rail infrastructure that never arrives, Mayor Andy Burnham admits he does feel like he’s been ‘hitting his head against a brick wall’.

Mr Burnham, who was chief secretary for the Treasury that funded the Crossrail package, says he doesn't begrudge investment in London infastructure, but argues it raises the bar even higher when it comes to 'levelling up'. He adds: "By talking about a Crossrail 2 when they've cancelled Crossrail for the North with the plan they've put forward, it's quite insulting. Rail services here drag people down, they ruin nights out, make people late home from work, give then childcare costs, you have to get taxis.

"People are fed up of a Government that said they were coming in to sort it all out but are building up more and more in London. I'd have no objection if we were getting the same but we're not. It's a decision point for them, they need to decide are they levelling up or are they not? If they don't start to prioritise the north and Manchester particularly, for investment, I think that people will clearly see the answer to that question."

On the cut-price station at Piccadilly, Mr Burnham argues this would hold the northern economy 'at a lower level', adding: "If this solution is built in 100 years people will say 'what were they doing?' Why didn't they get it right for the North? The North needs the best east-west connectivity it can have, that is an underground station at Manchester Piccadilly. Future generations won't forgive us. This goes beyond politics, it's what's best for the North of England for the rest of this century and beyond.

“More broadly, billions and billions have been spent on London’s stations over the years, practically every major station has had a huge overhaul in the last decade and yet you look at our train stations, the five city centre stations, when did they last see any major investment?"

The Manchester Evening News asked the DfT for a breakdown of how they came to the £5bn figure for an underground station. They said HS2 Ltd's work on this is yet to be published. By this point, there’s a case to say that a half-hearted approach to the railways of the North is unofficially ingrained in policy. However, there is still hope, in some quarters, that this could change.

The debate is now entering the political arena with the Crewe-Manchester HS2 Bill, including the proposal for a cut-price underground station at Piccadilly, now coming before parliament. And despite the setbacks, the Mayor has vowed to persevere: "We will keep fighting and we will be fighting throughout the entirety of the passage of the (HS2) bill through parliament. I think we can win the argument in parliament."

Can northern leaders save our rail?

There is also some optimism away from politics. The way the country’s railways are run is on the cusp of major reform.

Great British Railways (GBR) will subsume Network Rail - whose ‘systemic failures’ were found to be in part to blame for 2018’s timetable fiasco - in managing the national rail infrastructure. With bidding underway for contenders, its headquarters could be based in the north.

GBR paves the way for ‘radical reform’, dismantling the current franchise system of operations in a system not dissimilar to how the mayor hopes our buses will be run, with central control over planning, including setting train fares and timetables. The challenge now is for northern leaders to make sure their strategic plans become front and centre of that national ambition.

Step up city regions of the north, their growing band of mayors and Transport the North (TfN), the statutory body driving connections across the North, to make sure the region’s voices are heard. Critics doubt the efficacy of TfN, which was summarily dismissed by the Government last year when it was ‘downgraded’ from its role in NPR. However, there is clear optimism from within its ranks, based on current discussions with Network Rail and the DfT, over how it can play a key role in reform.

Arguably one obstacle to success for railways in the North has been the (soon to be historic) geographical organisation of Network Rail - divided into the North West and Central region on one side, with London and the North East on the other. This, say its critics, has naturally moved a focus away from the vital east-west links and capacity that are so sorely needed, especially in the North of the country.

Experts say there needs to be a shift in how the Government and rail planners think about the North, with an integrated, coherent policy across the region - and that GBR’s planned ‘pipeline’ approach, which necessitates a look forward over the next 30 years, could avoid the pitfalls of the ‘five-year delivery’ approach of old.

Reform could also give scope for northern leaders to push for more on top of the lacking efforts of the IRP - with accountability on spending a key factor in making this happen.

And accountability is a bugbear. It's now been nearly 900 days since the DfT last published its Rail Network Enhancements Pipeline - an update on all rail projects across the country which the Government had committed to publishing every year. The Manchester Evening News has asked the DfT about this report, which is understood to be 'coming soon'.

Meanwhile, in a statement, Martin Tugwell, chief executive of TfN, points to the north’s post-pandemic recovery as a sign of its potential, and says their focus is to work with the DfT to develop and deliver the IRP and ‘help the north make its full contribution to the national economy’.

It's against a backdrop of turbulent times for the rail industry more generally. Rolling stock shortages, industrial disputes, and a pandemic which has not only required huge taxpayer bailouts but has also been transformative for passenger travel habits (Monday and Tuesday are now the railways’ least busy days), all make for a rapidly changing landscape.

And, as always, amid competing challenges for the Treasury, the buck for change still stops with the Government and the vital funding that it seems to hand so readily to passengers in London.

'They're trying to divide us'

But is there a danger in becoming too fixated on the 'North-South divide'?

John Bull, editor of London Reconnections, which focuses on in-depth analysis of transport projects, politics and policy in the capital and the South-East, believes there is. He points out that Crossrail, along with many other large infrastructure projects in the capital, was in fact at least 82pc self-funded by London through measures like borrowing and council tax stipends, boosted by the Government.

London are able to do this because of their devolved governance; the London mayoralty has had huge influence over transport through Transport for London (TFL) and was able to raise money on the private markets and through very good borrowing rates. United, the north could also raise its own cash, and this idea was mooted when NPR was downgraded. However, without the financial clout of London, the North needs more Government support.

John argues that the Treasury is biased toward investing in projects that will give the most- and fastest - return on their money, which favours London. He says this isn't how investment should work, adding: "Actually the lack of investment up north harms London because it forces more people into London."

He adds: "One of the things this current Government does really well is push that dialogue of 'us' versus 'them'. They say 'here's the cake' and then give London a small slice and say to the North 'they've stolen your bit of the cake'. It doesn't work like that. It always gets pitched that something isn't happening up north because money is being spent in the south. Its' a conscious sell. It's absolute rubbish."

While London's success on public transport has been brilliant for Londoners, it's also set a very high bar when it comes to 'levelling up'. Many in the rail industry argue that's why the Government is 'using Covid' (and its emergency pandemic funding) to take power, and crucially budget, away from Transport for London in a bid to 'level them down'.

There's a case to say that success for rail lies in the true devolution of power to mayors (and bodies like TfN), whose political success is actually impacted by the travel experiences of their electorate, in the same way this is happening with bus reform in Greater Manchester. But the Government has shown reluctance to let go of its centralised power, demonstrated by leaders' five-year battle to take control of Manchester's railway stations.

John argues that Manchester and London should, in fact, be working together to become an 'enormous economic and transport powerhouse'. He adds: "It's very telling the Government sell is trying to push those bodies apart.

"There needs to be a change in the political dialogue up north to say 'we're not going to take that as an excuse, it wasn't because London got the money. The Treasury needs to think about how it does projects differently. We are a big enough economy to invest in two things at once'. I think London has a responsibility to be better at trying to be part of that conversation.

"Look for the places they are trying to divide us and ask why. Who's winning from that dialogue? It's the people who don't want to invest in both.

"All this comes down to politics. Things get done not because they are the best thing on paper to do, they get done because they deliver the biggest political value in combination with delivering some real world value. What isn't a big priority for the Government right now its to deliver big projects in the North of England. It should be - and they claim it is - but also don't feel any repercussions for not delivering because they can always blame London when they don't."

At its heart, rail is about connecting people - and passengers reactions to last year's cut-price plans were telling.

The challenge for northern leaders seems to be also creating meaningful connections in the minds of Westminster’s decision makers to the passengers who live in the North of England, which then translate into on-the-ground devolution, budget decisions, clear timescales and crucially ACTION in the region's best interests. It’s these decisions that will shape not only our railways, but our economy, health and happiness, for decades to come.

The seemingly unbridgeable gap between the Government's levelling up jargon and its action on the ground has not gone unnoticed. And when it comes to our railways, say experts across the country and leaders here, that’s the gap Boris Johnson needs to mind if he really does care about the North's onward journey, especially when his own next stop is a general election.

What the Department for Transport say:

"We continue working towards delivering a rail network that is cleaner, greener and fairer to taxpayers, while boosting opportunity right across the country. Our work to date has seen 800 miles of electrification in just four years and the largest ever single investment with the £96bn Integrated Rail Plan. This will deliver improvements to the Midlands Main Line, as well as the completion of the Transpennine Route Upgrade.”

  • Alongside publication of the IRP, £625 million funding was confirmed for the Transpennine Route Upgrade (TRU), which will form the first part of Northern Powerhouse Rail, taking total commitments on the programme to date to just over £2bn.
  • Delivery of TRU is already well under way. Between Manchester and Stalybridge, the construction programme for the Overhead Line Equipment (OLE) began in Spring last year and is currently in full swing. A major blockade in Summer 2021 also delivered bridge, track and signalling work near Manchester Victoria. This has been followed by further work over Christmas 2021 and the New Year delivering track and signalling upgrades with further phases of work being delivered through Spring and Summer 2022.
  • To the east of Leeds, the construction programme between Church Fenton and York began in July 2021. OLE steel work has been erected with wiring expected to be completed at the end of 2022. Signalling, telecoms and track works were also delivered over Christmas 2021 with further track work being delivered through Spring 2022.
  • These works are just the start of a programme of upgrades that will see the Transpennine main line fully electrified, upgraded with digital signalling and capacity for extra services, improving journey times, service frequency and reliability for rail users along the route.

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