Opinion: Ending the northern power cut

Yesterday, Patrick McLoughlin announced what many of us had feared but were hoping would never happen: electrification of the train line between Manchester and Leeds was to be postponed, and possibly cancelled. The lynchpin of the Northern Powerhouse was pulled out and the plan predictably fell apart at the seams.

Three months ago, the Conservatives promised that £38 bn would be invested in the national rail network, mostly into electrifying the old diesel lines. This was so important to the Tories, we were told, that it was at the top of the manifesto. On page 11, the Tories outlined their plans for £13 bn for the North alone, going towards new trains, new lines, and new wires. And in one speech today, McLoughlin snuffed out the flame of hope in such a way on the Tories can.

The rail network in the North is completely dire, and bears all of the hallmarks of central government in London meddling time and time again. Serco-Abellio were awarded all but the actually profitable lines and told to run a vast network in the North using Cold War-era trains under the assumption that there was to be no growth and no investment in the Northern network. And to their credit, they’ve done a good job from what they’ve been given.

But rail in the north has grown beyond all expectations, and the small old “Pacer” trains, built on the cheap thirty years ago, can’t take the strain any longer. New trains and new electric wires would enable the North to step into the twentieth century while London aimed towards the twenty-second. But with electrification across the North and Midlands all but cancelled, we cannot expect the trains to be off the tracks for good before the Disability Discrimination Act’s deadline of 2019.

But, to nobody’s surprise, rail schemes in the South escaped the cut. The worst thing is that this isn’t a change in the state of affairs. Labour too must shoulder responsibility for the state of the North. They took their safe constituencies in the North for granted whilst bribing London with train line upon train line upon train line. Whilst Alistair Darling was busy approving Crossrail with its £20bn price-tag and funnelling more money into Thameslink, the DLR, and Terminal 5, tram projects in both Manchester and Leeds costing a fraction of the price got the axe from his department. All at the same time electrifying only nine miles of track. And they are now sowing the effects of complacency, with UKIP taking chunks of their support all across the North.

When compared to the two major parties, even doing nothing at all would make us come out smelling like roses. But we didn’t do just that. In the coalition, we grabbed the nettle by the thorn and pushed for the approval of the biggest rail project for the North for generatins: the Northern Hub. We pushed for wide-ranging electrification. And when Network Rail’s plans for electrification initially left out the Calder Valley line, local Liberal Democrats alongside our former transport minister, Baroness Kramer, lobbied for its inclusion.

As liberals, we know that the only way to prosperity is to give people the power to prosper, not by dictating that they must. We see in Scotland and Wales the success of proper representative devolution. And we see that, with the Northern Powerhouse, Osborne’s city region mayors, overwhelmingly rejected in Sheffield, Manchester, and Leeds just three years ago, will now be one-eyed kings leading the blind.

In November, the Yorkshire and Humber regional conference overwhelmingly passed motions for proper and accountable devolution and prosperity. Yorkshire clearly wants to replace unaccountable layers of bureaucracy with a strong democratically elected Parliament. Manchester clearly wants its own powers to build its own path to prosperity. As our MP in Leeds North West, Greg Mulholland said, “Yorkshire is the real entity. It is Yorkshire that is the brand and that has the huge economic potential for growth”. For a more prosperous North and for modern infrastructure, the only way forward is proper and accountable devolution. And we must push with every fibre of our resolve to secure that.

* Sarah Noble is an activist in Calderdale. Alongside her role on the LGBT+ Liberal Democrats executive, she shares a keen interest in devolution and transport policy.

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  • Did Nick Clegg know the Tories were planning to cut funding for the Sheffield rail project before the election?

  • Does Clegg know where Sheffield is?

    One of the strengths of the Lib Dems was that they were seen as a party that stood up for the regions against the political machine that sucked power and money from those regions to London – hence the success on the Celtic fringes. That all ended with Clegg; a white, upper-class, public school-educated, banker’s-son, London-boy who still spends his time chatting on London radio stations despite the fact that he’s a back-bench MP representing a constituency in Sheffield.

    Good article, by the way. The Tories predictably screwing over the north, again. Try convincing anyone that they wouldn’t have done so even if they were still in coalition with Clegg after the election.

  • Rail in the South is also rubbish and both rail and roads in the South are far more crowded than oop North. I havent met many Londoners bursting to use HS2 to visit Brum, obviously Crossrail is a massive investment near London. Crossrail aside, there is no hallmark of London centric thinking – HS2 is a vanity project that has sucked the life out of all of the smaller projects, as predicted.

  • “Crossrail aside, there is no hallmark of London centric thinking”

    Except for the overwhelming evidence:


  • David Evershed 26th Jun '15 - 11:13am

    How can the government consider funding HS2 whilst not prioritising the funding of electrification of existing lines to the North?

    They should suspend HS2 and press ahead urgently with electrification of existing rail lines.

  • I have in the London suburbs since I was 8 and have used trains to get to school and to work (and to tradl around the country as part of my sork) over 50 years.

    I cannot believe that any rational person cannot see the lack of investment in rail In the North.

    In comparison London has had £Billions spent on rail infrastructure in the last 15 years.

    All that guff about “Northern Power House” can be seen for what it was and is – Conservative lies thrown around in advance of an election.
    Watch out for the cut in housing money for Manchester.
    Will Stockport be allowed to pull out when all the sugar-coating is removed from the ndeocratic pill?

  • I do think this cancelling of investment in the north is a real political opportunity for the Lib Dems to rebuild here… We need to take a leaf out of the SNP book here… Not a Nationalist leaf, but a devolutionist one

  • David Evershed 26th Jun ’15 – 11:13am……………How can the government consider funding HS2 whilst not prioritising the funding of electrification of existing lines to the North?…………..They should suspend HS2 and press ahead urgently with electrification of existing rail lines……………….

    Well, as they deliberately held back the 2012 report that HS2 is ‘unaffordable’, I imagine that, no matter what the cost, this ‘white elephant’ will still go ahead even if the rest of the rail network north of Birmingham reverts to horse drawn carriages…….

  • “Crossrail aside, there is no hallmark of London centric thinking – HS2 is a vanity project that has sucked the life out of all of the smaller projects, as predicted.”
    On the contrary, HS2 is very much London centric. Be under no illusion, the real purpose of HS2 is to make Warwick commutable thus helping London to alleviate its out of control housing problem.?

  • Sarah Noble is quite right. Osborne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ has the same veracity as his ‘We’re all in it together’.
    Over the last five years,Osborne and that South East based ex-Bradfordian Pickles, (sadly nodded through by the Clegg/Alexander acolytes) disproportionately hammered northern local government.

    The site below has the IFS figures.


    One of the biggest cuts areas was in transport.

    The Osborne ‘Powerhouse’ also rips out the democratically elected element of local government….. appealing to the authoritarian Manchester Labour lobby who fancy the idea of concentrated power for a pseudo Commissar Mayor.

    Is it any wonder there are stirrings for a Northern movement to link up with the SNP for independence ? Northern local government needs a blood transfusion not a commissar..

    Sad to see the demise in Liberal support inthe Calder Valley. Down from 25% in 2010 to 5% this time. Sounds like a good post election research case study for the new leader. Back in the 60’s I was involved in Sowerby Liberal politics and campaigned for a Yorkshire Assembly then – so here’s hoping Sarah ?. Oh, and in 1966 George Brown’s ‘Economic Plan for the North ‘ envisaged a fully dualled A66 between Scotch Corner and the West. Still waiting – and four deaths in the last four months near Appleby.

  • For what it’s worth, I support HS2 in its strategic sense as not building it would further divide the country into a prosperous South and a disadvantaged North. As the vicious cycle of overspending on London continues, more people will want to move to the South and that means more local trains. With the WCML all but full, intercity services will probably face the axe.

    @Andrew and David: I agree on all this being a good opportunity, being in a Tory-held seat. Calder Valley’s bellwether tendency hit us rather hard this time around, and although Alisdair stood on both a strong and radical devolutionist and transport modernising platform, we found ourselves squeezed by both parties: from the Tories on devolution and Labour on transport. There was a lot of swearing when Labour hijacked our campaign to modernise the Calder Valley Line and kill off the Pacers. Watch this space, there may be something at Conference regarding this. 😉

  • Sorry, what “vicious cycle of overspending” on the London? Have you seen how crowded the Tube is these days?

    Presumably you believe that cutting spending on transport in London and the South East would somehow cure our transport congestion problems by getting us out of this “vicious cycle”.

    The point is that no government is willing to put its head above the parapet and admit that spending on transport and infrastructure needs to be raised ACROSS THE COUNTRY. This requires people to pay higher taxes to fund it.

    The people of Manchester had a chance to vote for a congestion charge to pay for better transport but decided not to. In general it is far easier to demand infrastructure investment when you are expecting someone else to have to pay for it.

    London and the South East already contribute far more in taxes overall than they get in spending and whatever infrastructure investment it gets has already been earned many times over.

  • David Raw: as the chair of Calderdale you’d be most welcome to come and give us the benefit of your experience at one of our discussion evenings 🙂

  • So now we know….. the Tories try to hide their HS2 vanity project costs until forced to sneak it out after a court ruling. As to Osborne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ it brings to mind a comment the late Bolton Liberal MP Arthur Holt used about another Cheshire Tory back in ’64. ‘He’s all p— and wind.’.


    In the meantime everything else is put on hold to provide a service probably only the rich will be able to afford – make no mistake there will be ‘premium pricing’ for something the rest of us will have paid for.

    Time for the Lib Dems in Parliament to look again at priorities. It now really is a case of Trident/HS2 vanity projects versus welfare cuts, basic down to earth social needs, and normal infrastructure improvements. We’ve now got the freedom to say so..

  • @RC: London gets twenty-five times more infrastructure spending than the North East, per head. There’s every possibility that Crossrail 2 might start running before electric trains on the Trans-Pennine Routes, let alone HS3.

    Must be really nice for London, with seven/eight-car trains being standard. It’s a rarity to get three car trains here.

  • “the Tories try to hide their HS2 vanity project costs” (David Raw)

    Actually it was Labour who originally set the ball rolling on this vanity project (ignoring the long discarded BR strategy plan from the 1960’s). What surprised me was that the Coalition didn’t simply bin it back in 2010 when they had the public backing and chance to rationalise extraneous government expenditure. Instead both the Conservatives and LibDems backed it despite it’s irrelevance to the UK economy in the “balancing the books” period of 2010~2030 and the evidence mounting against it’s need and viability; which to me suggest some shady backroom dealing which has just to be made public…

    I’m with Sarah, the postponement of previously announced rail project(s) with a strong business case is highly suspect, particularly as the government has given no reason for reneging on these commitments.

  • Sarah,
    Not just in Calder Valley but in seats like Colne Valley and in the Tory Council wards in all the Labour seats in the north…

  • Gwyn Griffiths 26th Jun '15 - 5:55pm

    Just for balance it may be worth mentioning that Northern Rail passengers get the highest subsidy per passenger mile of any train operator.

  • @Gwyn: Well, yes. Because they can’t contractually or practically turn a profit. Northern had the profitable routes stripped off them ten years ago and given to Transpennine Express, in a reversal of the consolidation of small franchises happening in the early 2000s. They also make a loss due to the amount of people using their services as connecting trains to InterCity journeys, where the IC operators get the lion’s share of the profits.

  • For what it’s worth, HS2 has nothing to do with the “classic” rail modernisation programme. They’re both completely separate budgets, and the cancellation of HS2 will not free money up for rail modernisation at all. The problem here is that we don’t have enough engineers to electrify on time on live running lines, but instead of postponing the completion of the GWML or Thameslink works, they’ve chosen to betray the North again.

    If anything, HS2 makes it easier. There are engineering colleges being set up to train new railway maintenance staff for HS2. Labour’s refusal to electrify in their thirteen years in power meant that the previously qualified electrification staff ended up leaving the country for work. It’s also much easier to do new-build as a civil engineering project than upgrade during the dead of night, especially on the Transpennine routes, which run passenger services 24/7/365.

  • Well said Sarah, Northern Rail (50% jointly owned by Serco and the Dutch state railways) also has the worst passenger satisfaction rate (79%) of any rail carrier and the most clapped out trains (hence expensive to run), not to mention extensive rural lines like the Settle-Carlisle which clocks up the miles per passenger.. Try the wiki site on Northern Rail to get a bit of the flavour.

    If N.R. is so heavily subsidised it might as well be owned by a British state owned company than a Dutch one.

    As for Serco, they are a rascally lot. The Guardian reported yesterday : “The Ministry of Justice is still paying security firms G4S and Serco millions of pounds every month for supplying electronic tagging equipment, more than a year after both companies were barred from running the contract. Both companies faced criminal investigations by the Serious Fraud Office over allegations of overcharging that led to them repaying nearly £180m.

    How about a full enquiry into Northern Rail ??

  • It’s really no fault of Northern. The franchise contract makes it hard for Serco–Abellio to do anything about it.

  • Just to add a little balance, two rail projects have been ‘postponed’:
    1. The electrification of the TransPennine Express railway line between Manchester, Leeds and York.
    2. The electrification of the Midland main line linking London to Sheffield.

    It seems one of the reasons is that the electrification of the Great Western line from London to Swansea is running a year late and its cost estimate has tripled from £640m to £1.7bn. The worrying thing about this is that electrification is a ‘known’ project, unlike HS2. So if this type of project can experience such huge cost and time increase then we can confidently expect the HS2 Phase I costs to easily do a x3. So we can expect that £16.3 bn at 2011 prices, to become at least £49 bn – which once debt serving costs get factored, totally destroy’s HS2’s apology of an economic and business case…

  • Speaking as someone living ‘on the Celtic fringes…’
    …while I am sorry northern England is to lose out, if it’s true things are being cut back to ensure electrification of the Great Western line remains a priority, I’m relieved.

    To borrow a quote from the BBC; Responding for the Welsh government, economy minister Edwina Hart said: “It’s got to be kept on budget, it’s got to be kept on time because ourselves and industry are desperate to ensure we have the electrification to Swansea.”

    There’s more to the UK than the ‘prosperous south and the disadvantaged north,’ you know.

  • Gwyn Griffiths 26th Jun '15 - 10:37pm

    @Sarah. I’m puzzled by your reference to Northern being unable to turn a profit. Does Serco/Abellio do it out of kindness?

    And yes, if NR and TPE was combined the subsidy rate would be lower, but it would still be at the upper end of the scale.

  • Morgan Inwood 27th Jun '15 - 1:58am

    Network Rail has many problems like bad management, lack of skills, spiralling costs etc and Patrick McLoughlin has blamed Network Rail. I have started a discussion on a Facebook Group about Network Rail. Sir Richard Branson has called for Network rail to be broken up.

    Apparently the Tories knew prior to the Election as the Regulator (ORR) and the Transport Select Committee warned. If the Tories did know prior to the Election then why make a big deal out of it . There are political implications from the announcement and if both Rail projects are cancelled then a certain MP for Derbyshire Dales may lose his Seat in 2020.

    This has an effect on half of the Parliamentary Party in the Commons as Tim, Greg, Nick and John’s Constituencies will be affect by the effects the announcement on both Franchises and rolling stock.

  • I couldn’t agree more! I moved to Yorkshire (via the North West (from Wiltshire) just over 4 years ago and quickly understood what “northerners” had been saying about the divide and the London-centric nature of everything.

    I am surprised and disappointed there is not more of a Yorkshire movement in this proud area which can put aside comparatively petty local differences to push for more devolved power, better investment and a stronger identity. Leeds (and York and Sheffield and Bradford) are light years behind Manchester and the wider Manchester city region in creating a strong identity and synergies to pull in investment and build local infrastructure. As a LibDem I want a strong organisation of likeminded people to push harder for this wonderful area.

    Totally agree with comments that HS2 should not even be considered until infrastructure here receives serious investment – the dependency on the “smart(??)” M62 is a disgrace. The concept of HS2 is sound but the reality of ripping up and ruining some of the most beautiful land anywhere is too much to stomach: “to justify a sin, say that it creates employment”.

  • We must wrest back the devolution debate, make it our own and make it happen. Living in rural Suffolk we would be happy to see northern cities empowered (and others), but please don’t forget all the rural and remoter areas, we need great train and other services too. Fast fibre broadband, a mobile phone signal 3G let alone 4G would be nice…

  • Roland 26th Jun ’15 – 9:48pm ……………………… So we can expect that £16.3 bn at 2011 prices, to become at least £49 bn – which once debt serving costs get factored, totally destroy’s HS2’s apology of an economic and business case……….

    It was never going to be £16.3bn…and it’s already approaching your figure without any ‘spadework’ ..

    “The report warned that the £16.3bn budget for the London-Birmingham stretch of the high-speed network was “in danger of being mistaken for the expected cost of Phase 1 – whereas it is only a partial estimate made in 2011 prices with significant exclusions”….
    .Major Projects Authority report * HS2, (Cost £42.6bn and rising) which has been designated as “amber/red” meaning the schemes are at “high-risk” of failing!

  • expats – Thanks, I was trying to use an official figure that didn’t already include a ‘budget’ for cost increases. Something the HS2 supporters kept on and on about how because of this budget the actual delivered cost would be less than the published figure. Yet I seem to remember this budget being only a few billion not a x3…
    So it looks as if the total cost of the full HS2 line between London and Scotland will be north of £500 bn in today’s money, circa £1 bn a mile and rising…

  • It should be mandatory for anyone involved in transport decisions to go look at Japan and then try to do comparable journeys in the UK. They actually know how to run a rail system and include features that are helpful to passengers.

  • Roland, No worries….

    With the escalating costs of HS2, The Palace of Westminster, repair estimate at £3bn (I’m expecting the builder to ‘suck air through his teeth, shake his head’ and say, “No chance guv’…” and Buck House…..It would be cheaper to move the lot to Birmingham and start again….

    I’m only half joking!

  • Charles Rothwell 27th Jun '15 - 2:38pm

    How on earth anyone could possibly believe a word from a Tory government with a majority (unless whatever it is they are pronouncing is in the direct interests of the wealthy and powerful (and the areas where they are most likely to reside/operate)) is just beyond me to begin with.

    West Yorkshire

  • Richard Underhill 27th Jun '15 - 5:03pm

    High Speed rail should be a competitor for air transport, but HS2 is not intended to go to Aberdeen, or Swansea or Liverpool or Belfast. Birmingham is about 110 miles from London, about twice as far as Brighton.

    Think about HS2 and consider the option of linking it to Heathrow.
    Please note that a candidate for Mayor of Greter London wants a high speed rail link between Heathrow and Gatwick. He did not mention that there was one, using helicopters, which were presumably too noisy and that there can be traffic congestion on the M25, despite the bus lanes.

    Come back Norman Baker, we need you.

    Following up Norman Lamb’s suggestion that federal conference should have electronic voting, why not turn the historic building on the Thames into a museum and allow MPs to vote electronically from the constituencies? There must be a risk of fire, as has happened before.

  • Richard Underhill 27th Jun '15 - 5:04pm

    Labour candidate for Mayor of Greater London

  • Expats

    “move the lot to Birmingham and start again….”

    Near Manchester would be a better bet.

  • Psi 29th Jun ’15 – 8:29am ………..….”Near Manchester would be a better bet….

    Most of those in the ‘Westminster bubble’ would suffer Hypoxia as far north as Birmingham let alone Manchester….

  • Expats

    “Most of those in the ‘Westminster bubble’ would suffer Hypoxia as far north as Birmingham let alone Manchester”

    In that case Glasgow… No Inverness.

  • @Psi “In that case Glasgow… No Inverness.”


    Or the British Antarctic Territory.

  • TCO 29th Jun ’15 – 10:24am ……..Stornoway…………Or the British Antarctic Territory……

    Or another planet. However, most of them seem, already, to live there……

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