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By Silviya Barrett
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'Enormous problems' - Northern MPs on train and transport issues across their regions

'Enormous problems' - Northern MPs on train and transport issues across their regions

MPs have raised concerns about transport in their constituencies (Alamy)

7 min read

With “difficult decisions” to come on the economy, northern MPs tell Caitlin Doherty what the government should do with rail and other transport services to best serve their communities.

“Nightmare.”

“Enormous problems.”

MPs of all stripes in constituencies across the north of England share similar frustrations about trains and transport more generally on their patch. Added to that, there is also uncertainty about what the future may hold for these key infrastructures, with MPs offering different opinions on what the next steps should be to provide the best service for their constituents.

New Prime Minister Rishi Sunak entered No 10 warning there would be “difficult decisions to come” on the economy, with cuts expected across swathes of government departments over the coming months, and no guarantees on what, if anything, will be protected from the chop, fuelling fears among some of his own backbenchers, that transport may be at risk.

November marks a year since the release of the controversial Integrated Rail Plan (IRP), which confirmed that plans for the HS2 rail line to Leeds had been scrapped for now. There was, however, a commitment to a study to best ascertain how to get HS2 trains to Leeds.

There were also more details on Northern Powerhouse Rail, which was first pitched as a new line that would traverse the north of England east to west, connecting cities with high speed services. But in the IRP, these plans were also downgraded.

The IRP was met with anger from a number of Tory MPs as well as Labour.

But nearly a year later, northern transport was thrown back into the political spotlight this summer, when Liz Truss committed to building the line during the Conservative leadership contest, and reiterated that meant it could be constructed “in full” during an interview at Conservative Party Conference.

The apparent U-turn from her predecessor Boris Johnson’s plans was welcomed by a number of her colleagues, including the former Tory chair of the Transport Committee Huw Merriman, who told The House shortly afterwards that it was “really encouraging” and a good example of where the Truss government “going further” than the Johnson administration on transport” –  (he has since been made a transport minister).

Labour MP Hilary Benn, who represents Leeds Central, was not convinced, describing himself as having a “rather jaundiced view precisely because we’ve been here before”.

He added: “Seeing is believing. Travelling is believing. When it’s built – if it’s built – and it’s finished and we can travel on it, then it will be great to be able to go from Liverpool all the way across to Hull and back again.”

Train departure boards
Departure boards showing train schedules (Alamy)

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, brought in by Truss with a mandate to settle markets spooked by her unfunded growth pledges, was asked explicitly about the NPR project by Conservative MP Kevin Hollinrake, representing Thirsk and Malton, earlier this month.

Hollinrake told the Commons that while it was “absolutely right” ministers “look for better value for the taxpayer through spending restraints”, MPs needed assurances that spending cuts “will not impact on capital expenditure [...] particularly across the north” and a promise that NPR would go ahead.

Hunt replied: “Given the severity of the situation at the moment, we are not taking anything off the table, whether that means tax increases or spending reductions.”

Ahead of Truss’s resignation, but after her NPR promise, Hollinrake told The House about his concerns that the “easiest, most convenient” place for ministers to make public sector spending cuts of the type that may be seen in the coming months “is big infrastructure spending”.

The MP, who backed Sunak in both of this year’s leadership contests and since speaking to The House has been made a minister, went on: “The concern is that they start to look at that as a means to balance the books, which to me would be the wrong thing to do.”

He added that while there had been no talk of spending cuts in the summer’s leadership race, the “adverse reaction” to the mini-Budget meant there was now a desire to balance the books.

“So personally I’m concerned that that is now the focus and therefore certain things will be at risk in terms of spending [such as] funding like infrastructure,” he added.

Henri Murison, chief executive at the Northern Powerhouse Partnership group, praised the introduction of what he described as “sound public finances” but suggested that areas where there are “huge sunk costs” – money that has already been spent – like infrastructure, are not where cuts should come from.

He told The House: “We need to balance the books so that we can still afford to borrow for long-term projects to raise regional productivity and with it national growth, sustainably.”

“Jeremy Hunt has always supported key infrastructure like HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail and cutting back on areas where there are huge sunk costs and much of the investment is beyond the current spending review period is the worst way to make short-term savings to repair the damage done by Trussonomics.”

But it is not just the big ticket infrastructure that MPs are keen to see action on. While train lines occupy a lot of political headlines, some believe that buses are just as – if not more – important to their communities, representing a lifeline to essential services, and need to work in tandem with other transport. One former PM clearly thought so too. Bus Back Better was a strategy revealed by Boris Johnson last March, and promised to improve services across the country. “Some people ask what levelling up means in practice, and what difference it will really make to people’s lives,” he said at the time.

“This is part of what it means.”

Hull West and Hessle Labour MP Emma Hardy wants the “whole package” to be integrated.

“I’ve had so many complaints from constituents about the unreliability of the service, how poor the train service is, getting cancelled all the time,” she told The House. “And actually, it’s not just the trains, it’s the buses as well.”

“People often get the bus to where they’re going if they had already arrived by train, but that’s another absolute nightmare at the moment.”

Miriam Cates, the Tory MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge first elected in 2019, thinks that buses are a “much more universal concern” than trains, but that in a post-pandemic world, people’s changed travel habits should be taken into consideration as “times have changed enormously” and “we don’t know for sure whether or not it’s going to go back to how it was.”

“I think we’ve got to acknowledge we live in very different times to when the initial HS2 plans and Northern Powerhouse Rail plans were made,” she said. 

“In my constituency we’ve got some enormous problems with bus services at the moment,” she said, pointing towards local political management.

“We’ve seen some huge cuts but the passenger numbers are only 70 per cent or sometimes only 60 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, so it’s totally changed the business model and the viability of public transport. I do think it’s sensible to look at it in that light and think about what the future holds and what is best value for money.”

For now, the Department for Transport pointed The House towards the £96bn of promises in last year’s IRP and increased funding for bus services.

With a new tranche of ministers still getting their feet under the table, questions over whether more funding will follow will have to be made in the coming weeks and months.

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