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The HS2 climbdown will hit the ‘red wall’ Tories: this is about far more than trains | Andrew Vine


There’s a default facial expression that those of us who commute by train around Yorkshire and the rest of the north regularly wear.

It’s one of grim resignation, which on particularly bad days hardens into scowling resentment at being packed so tightly into monstrously overcrowded carriages on journeys that proceed glacially slowly.

So slowly, in fact, that a friend of mine who is heavily into railway memorabilia discovered that some trains between Leeds and Manchester make the journey only 10 minutes faster than in the days when young men from the industrial north were marching off to fight in the first world war. Another notorious route is Leeds to Sheffield, which can take well over an hour to cover just 35 miles.

This sort of performance wouldn’t be tolerated in the commuter belt around London. There would be questions in the Commons about why longsuffering passengers had to put up with it, and business would demand improvements, arguing that lousy train services hold the economy back. This would be listened to and acted upon. Yet the same demands from vast swaths of the north are not. Worse, they are ignored – and commuters and business leaders alike are fobbed off with more empty pledges on rail improvements that do not withstand detailed scrutiny.

So it was with a familiar, and well-practised, sense of grim resignation that many in the north will have greeted the government pulling the rug on plans for high-speed rail.

Yorkshire, in particular, has been badly let down. No HS2 line to Sheffield and Leeds; no northern powerhouse rail to bring journey times across the Pennines into the 21st century; and nothing to finally rid Bradford of the unenviable distinction of being Britain’s worst-connected big city.

Anger and disappointment greeted the announcement by transport secretary Grant Shapps, but there was no real surprise. This has been a let-down – and a betrayal of promises by Boris Johnson on both HS2 and northern powerhouse rail – but in Yorkshire we’ve seen this approaching with the ponderousness of a packed commuter train pulling into a station.

Years of prevarication pointed clearly towards yesterday’s announcement. Doubts first emerged when the government ignored calls to start simultaneously building HS2 from its northern and southern endpoints, that is, Manchester and Leeds as well as London, which would have ensured the fastest progress towards completion.

The grab-bag of rail improvements that Shapps unveiled won’t do anything to dilute the sense that the north has been short-changed, even though Manchester will eventually get its HS2 link.

The familiar government spin of presenting funds already announced as new money undermines the claim that it has a comprehensive plan to improve services. It has nothing of the sort, only a set of piecemeal projects attempting to squeeze a bit more capacity out of an essentially Victorian railway network, which weary commuters know will make little difference.

Whether Johnson and Shapps realise it, high-speed rail in the north was about much more than transport. It was about the entire credibility of government promises to a region that is home to almost a quarter of the country’s population.

In the “red wall” seats that the Tories won from Labour in 2019 – several of which, like Dewsbury, Colne Valley and Keighley, lie along exceptionally poor rail routes – there has been mounting cynicism about the government’s “levelling-up” agenda, which has put better rail services at its heart.

“It’s total bullshit,” one leading industrialist in West Yorkshire with longstanding links to the Conservatives told me. “They know it, and we know it. What’s starting to worry them is that they know we know it.”

This businessman is torn between loyalty to the government and the needs of the area where he and his employees live and work; an area which is simply not seeing any improvements coming its way, despite Johnson’s trumpeting about transforming the north’s fortunes.

Where’s the evidence? Or the money? Those are the questions being asked in the big cities of Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield and Hull, and in the former mill towns of West Yorkshire or the mining communities of South Yorkshire. They are also being asked by Tory activists I know in red wall constituency associations, who were bouncing about like Duracell bunnies after the 2019 election but are rather less animated now.

Each visit by Johnson – and there have been many, as he seeks to convince northerners he is their friend – brings promises, but little in the way of action. It seems certain he’ll pay a price at the next election in the red wall seats. Leaving us stuck on a slow train is about more than railways. It’s a matter of the government losing credibility among voters it needs to hang on to. To the north, let down so often by successive governments over investment, broken promises are worse than no action at all.

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