Boris Johnson backs high-speed Leeds to Manchester rail route

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The move could cut journey times on the trans-Pennine route between Manchester and Leeds from 50 minutes to less than 30

Prime Minister Boris Johnson will pledge to fund a new high-speed rail route between Leeds and Manchester.

In a speech in Manchester later, Mr Johnson will give his backing to the trans-Pennine transport link to “turbo-charge the economy”.

It is claimed the plans would cut journey times on the 36-mile (58km) route from 50 minutes to less than 30.

The full details of the route are expected to be published in the autumn following the review into HS2.

It is thought the new route will be part of Mr Johnson’s wider commitment to deliver a high-speed railway link across the north of England, which would cost about £39bn.

The previous government supported the project in principle but had not committed to investing in it.

But Labour cast doubt on Mr Johnson’s pledge – saying he had failed to deliver on infrastructure as mayor of London.

HS2 and HS3

  • HS2 would connect London, the Midlands and up to Wigan, Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds using trains capable of travelling at 250mph.
  • The north-to-south rail line is budgeted to cost £56bn.
  • The first segment – between London and Birmingham – is due to open in 2026, with the second – to Leeds and Manchester – expected to be completed by 2033.
  • HS3 – a high-speed east-west rail link between Manchester and Leeds – was first announced by the government in 2014 but no firm commitments have been made since.
  • In June 2019, the Department for Transport would not confirm when a decision on HS3 would be made, but estimated it could cost up to £39bn.

The idea of a high-speed, east-west rail connection in northern England was first announced in 2014 by the then chancellor George Osborne as part of his Northern Powerhouse strategy.

He claimed it would allow cities from Liverpool to Hull “to take on the world”, but since then little progress has been made despite swathes of reports, announcements and pledges.

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Rail journeys between Leeds and Manchester are regarded as too slow and are often overcrowded

In 2016 a report for the National Infrastructure Commission found the scheme needed “kick-starting” and concluded a concrete plan should be in place by 2017.

In 2017, Mr Osborne claimed Theresa May’s government had made a “systematic attempt” to “eradicate all mention of the initiative”.

The Northern Powerhouse Minister Jake Berry replied that the scheme “would happen”, but failed to provide any details of when.

In 2018, a £70bn master plan announced by Transport for the North – set up to co-ordinate transport across the north of England – included HS3 in its plans for a new rail network, called Northern Powerhouse Rail. It was met with a mixed response.

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Mr Johnson is only proposing to fund the route between Manchester and Leeds

Labour’s shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald said the project had been “announced time and time again by the Conservatives”.

“With Boris Johnson’s staggering failure to build a bridge across the Thames and an estuary airport I’m not confident he’ll be able to deliver better train services between Leeds and Manchester,” he added.

“What we really need is Labour’s Crossrail for the North, from Liverpool to Hull and up to the North East to unleash the economic potential of the region.

“Just upgrading the rail between Leeds and Manchester – the same distance as the Central line on the London Underground – won’t achieve that.”

Analysis

By Spencer Stokes, BBC Look North transport correspondent

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Robert Wright

Theresa May’s government had said that it supported the idea of a new, fast rail route across the Pennines in principle – but it hadn’t found the money to make it a reality.

Boris Johnson’s speech goes one step further with a firm pledge to fund the Leeds to Manchester line.

The new railway would have a significant impact on journey times. Leeds to Manchester could be cut from around 50 minutes to less than 30 minutes.

Local authorities in the north have campaigned hard for extra cash for the north’s railways following years of investment in big transport projects in London such as Crossrail – and the rebuilding of several of the capital’s rail stations.

Attention will now turn to the precise route and if the HS2 experience is anything to go by that’s when the difficulties of building a railway become apparent.

Mr Johnson will use the speech to state he is committed to “rebalance power, growth and productivity across the UK”.

He will also pledge to “improve the unglamorous local services which people use every day”, such as buses.

This has been welcomed by Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, who said improving the current transport system “is more important than a railway line that might be built in 15 or 20 years”.

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The HS3 rail link would reduce journey times from Leeds to Manchester to 30 minutes

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “If you asked me to prioritise, I would say prioritise this next decade but I don’t think we should be asked to prioritise because London has never been asked to do that.

“We should have new rail infrastructure alongside support for our transport system now.”

A survey by the Northern Powerhouse Partnership (NPP) found companies believed the upgraded network would boost productivity and investment.

NPP director Henri Murison said: “This is a seminal moment for the north – the entire Northern Powerhouse concept is all about connecting the cities and towns of the north to boost productivity.”

Leeds City Council leader Judith Blake said: “Northern Powerhouse Rail is key to our vision for a modern, reliable transport network that delivers faster journey times, additional capacity and greater reliability and I hope the Government will now work with us to accelerate delivery of this project.”