Grant Shapps Denies Rail Promises To The North Have Been Watered Down Despite Backlash
Transport secretary Grant Shapps has insisted that promises made over new rail connections in the north of England are "absolutely being fulfilled", despite scrapping new high speed lines.
Shapps instead accused Labour of "completely misleading" people after they said the government had "betrayed" vast swathes of the North after confirming plans for HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail were being downgraded.
On Thursday Shapps announced plans for a £96bn rail package which would see the eastern leg of HS2 no longer extend to Leeds via Bradford, while a new Northern Powerhouse rail link from Manchester to Leeds would also be downgraded.
Labour leader Keir Starmer said the government had "ripped up" their promises and said voters in Red Wall seats had been "treated as fools" by the Prime Minister.
"This was the first test of ‘levelling up’ and the Government has completely failed and let down everybody in the North. You can’t believe a word the Prime Minister says," Starmer said as the plans were announced.
But on Friday Shapps pushed back at the criticism, insisting commuters would still be able to "get around a lot faster".
He claimed Labour was "completely misleading people" by pointing to promised connections that did not materialise in final plans, when actually people should be paying attention to journey times.
"They'll be able to get around a lot faster," Shapps told Sky News.
"It's the first time spending that sort of money has been called a robbery."
Shapps highlighted that the plans do still include upgraded high speed lines, from Crewe to Manchester, from Warrington to West Yorkshire, and a new line from Birmingham to Nottingham and Derby.
"There are three new sections of high speed line, nearly 400 miles of electrification of line, lots of other updgrades, including digital signalling and actually the thing that will matter to people in the end, if you're in Manchester you'll have a 33 minute journey across to Leeds," Shapps explained.
Shapps said that commuters "virtually everywhere" would get better services, adding the new plans would deliver faster journey times "much much sooner" than they currently are.
"There will be an awful lot of people this morning who will be relieved," he said.
But the plans have attracted criticism from Conservative MPs in the north as well as from Labour.
The decision to downgrade the Manchester to Leeds line provoked anger from Huw Merriman, the Conservative chair of the Transport Select Committee, who accused the government of over-promising on the rail plans.
"This is the danger in selling perpetual sunlight and then leaving it for others to explain the arrival of moonlight," he said.
Critics have also highlighted how the government's own analysis shows journey times for commuters would still be significantly slower than under the original plans.
According to government documents, a journey between London and Leeds would be over 30 minutes slower than originally proposed, with travel from Birmingham to York and Newcastle around 50 minutes slower.
Trips between Birmingham and Leeds will also be around 40 minutes slower for commuters than estimated under the original plans.
Tory MP Robbie Moore, who represents a constituency in West Yorkshire, said: "The Bradford district has been, in my view, completely short-changed.
"We are one of the most socially-deprived parts of the UK and we must get better transport connectivity, and I still want to see Northern Powerhouse Rail delivered with a main stop in Bradford, so that we can unlock our economic opportunities."
Richard Bowker, former chair of the Strategic Rail Authority, said the government's cost saving plans would also bring "consequences" for commuters.
"Upgrading existing railways is costly, complex, uncertain and massively disruptive," he told the BBC'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."
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