Few travellers would disagree that the Transpennine Express makes for a splendid journey across the rugged spine of northern England, snaking through beautiful green valleys and picturesque stone villages, from Manchester Piccadilly to Leeds railway station. But perhaps many would quibble with the use of the word “express”.
It took just over an hour to traverse the 35 miles between the two cities on the 08.30 from Manchester on Friday – less an intercity bullet train than a rural heritage experience. The long-promised high-speed link was intended to cut the time to 25 minutes, but last week the government announced that it had abandoned those plans, along with the HS2 eastern section to Leeds.
On the quarter-full 8.30, the news inspired no great surprise and a certain amount of head-shaking frustration. “It’s typical,” said Maggie, a legal worker. “It’s the southern establishment deciding against the north again.”
Two distinct but related ideas about the north have featured in the various Conservative administrations since 2010. The first was the much-heralded”northern powerhouse”, which George Osborne promoted when he was chancellor. That initiative envisioned the north’s main cities rivalling the south-east by banding together to maximise their strength.
And then in 2019, Boris Johnson made inroads into Labour’s northern strongholds, partly by committing to “level up” by redistributing power and wealth towards a region that has suffered a shortage of both. Neither policy appeared to be advanced by last week’s announcement.
“It’s certainly a counter-productive move in terms of levelling up,” said Andy Whiting, an operations manager, who, like Maggie, was taking the opportunity to work on his laptop as the train stopped at the old mill town of Stalybridge on its leisurely progress eastwards. The decision to backtrack on rail modernisation comes on the back of a difficult period for the government, following the ill-fated move to save Owen Paterson and the ensuing allegations of sleaze. Both events could affect Conservative backing in the north.
“I was beginning to wonder what it would take for this government to lose the electorate’s support,” said Maggie.
But neither Whiting nor Phil Weaver, a motoring executive, thought that the stories of Tory former ministers and MPs earning large sums in second jobs would change voting intentions.
“It’s just politics,” said Weaver, while Whiting believed that if Keir Starmer were elected, his government would be facing a similar crisis within 18 months.
At Leeds station, passengers appeared to be less forgiving. Although the city has been promised a new transit system, it has been somewhat removed from the high-speed map. Not only has the HS2 leg north of the East Midlands been scrapped, but the Leeds-Manchester link had been due to go through Bradford, a city even less well served by transport.
“It’s pretty appalling really,” said Heather Heath, a music educator from Huddersfield. Originally from Essex, she had witnessed a steady decline in services and cultural life in the 30 years she’d been living in the north. “The gap between north and south is getting wider and wider, and this decision will only increase it,” she said. The phrase “northern powerhouse” was guaranteed to prompt cynical laughter, rather as if a visitor had gone to the Scottish Highlands and inquired about the Loch Ness monster.
“If you believe in that,” said Peter, a septuagenarian who disembarked with a bicycle, “you’re a bigger fool than I took you for.”
Graham, who works for the NHS, took a solid Yorkshire line that could probably be traced back to the Wars of the Roses. “The Northern Powerhouse?” he asked rhetorically. “That means Manchester. Leeds and Yorkshire in general are always left out of everything.”
He said that Leeds often felt cut off and neglected, and complained that getting to Manchester was invariably a trial, with either snarled-up motorways or delayed or cancelled trains. “But maybe that’s just me being bitter about their success in football,” he said.
Both Peter and his friend John had decided not to concern themselves with rail policy on the grounds, they explained with faultless logic, that they’d be dead before any of the plans were completed. “And in the meantime, we’d have to put up with all the disruption,” said John.
Levelling up was, he concluded, “just Boris Johnson again telling people what they want to hear”. With that they both cycled off, clearly happy to be free of the train.
Only half of one per cent of Leeds inhabitants visit Manchester in a year. And the same the other way round. What is striking was how many people stated that a) they didn’t use rail travel very much, finding it expensive, unreliable and time-consuming and b) didn’t think that the Conservatives would suffer too badly from breaking a firmly established promise – two years ago Johnson pledged to fund the Leeds to Manchester route.
Whether or not the gathering cracks in the futuristic vision of a northern powerhouse will reverse the damage inflicted on the “red wall” remains to be seen. “To be honest,” said a despairing Adele Syrat in Leeds station, “Johnson seems able to do anything and get away with it.”
That may have been true up until the Paterson affair. But the prime minister has now learned that he can go too far. He may yet discover that in ditching a high-speed rail line to Leeds, it’s also possible to not go far enough.