North losing out?

MPs demand £1bn to boost Northern England’s ailing transport networks

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What is the government's Northern Powerhouse initiative?

By Diane Cooke

It was George Osborne, in his capacity as Chancellor, who unveiled his vision for a Northern Powerhouse in 2014.

Although many doubted it would be effective, the principle that underpinned his thinking was sound. The north desperately needed a functioning infrastructure, as well as someone to knock heads together in Whitehall to get it moving, according to The Guardian.

A consensus emerged to invest billions of pounds to create a "great" city constellation in the north of England. Mr Osborne claimed the government would support a call from five northern cities for a £15bn investment over five years in science, transport and infrastructure.

He promised that the coalition's autumn statement would include plans for major investment in the north, saying: "Individually the cities are great, but collectively they are weaker than the sum of their parts".

His officials stressed that his support for the principles and direction of the plan did not stretch to a commitment to the £15bn investment plan proposed by the five cities, however.

The proposals from Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield were imaginative, Osborne said. They included increased road capacity, a trans-Pennine rail route, better access to Manchester airport, modernisation of rail rolling stock and addressing pinch-points on the rail network.

Five years after its launch the Northern Powerhouse is still very much a work in progress. But the i reported in February that progress had been made. The main achievement they said was Transport for the North..

Almost from scratch, the 19 local transport authorities across the North had put differences to one side to bring forward a coherent Strategic Transport Plan that could transform connectivity between its many towns and cities. Progress indeed, but without the powers afforded to Transport for London, it would remain dependent upon the goodwill of central government as to whether and when the plans are then funded.

That now appears to be a cruel joke as the region has been beset with chaotic transport problems - cancelled, delayed and poorly running trains - for months.

In April, 94.5 per cent of Northern trains ran to time. Two months to the day later, just 57.5 per cent of trains did. On the Lancashire to Cumbria inter-urban route, just over one in four trains were on time; less than a third in north Manchester; and just over half in Merseyside.

Britain’s rail system – particularly in the underloved north - where average investment per person of £1,600 is 2.6 times less than in London – has been creaking to a halt for years.

Underinvestment is just one of a plethora of issues, including chaotic, last-minute redrafting of timetables, serious understaffing and delayed refurbishment of railway lines, that has been pinpointed as the root cause of Northern’s great problems.

So serious are the issues that last month the prime minister was urged to step in to end the summer disruption which is thought to have cost businesses more than £1 million a day at its height.

Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham said the intervention was needed as he claimed there were no signs of improvement in services despite repeated calls for action from Transport Secretary Chris Grayling.

Greater Manchester leaders have called for the transport secretary to be sacked and Northern Rail to be stripped of its franchise after its performance slumped again last month – despite an emergency timetable.

In a letter to Theresa May, Mr Burnham wrote that performance on Northern Rail services "continued to be poor" following Mr Grayling's statement in May that the issue was the number one priority for his department.

It came as a report by the Northern Powerhouse Partnership (NPP) revealed a major impact on businesses, commuters and families, with former chancellor George Osborne calling for powers including spending to be devolved to Transport for the North.

It said that businesses had lost almost £38 million because of Northern Rail disruption, with the cost up to £1.3 million a day at its worst.

And some Trans Pennine routes had seen half of services cancelled or seriously delayed on the worst days.

The full cost to the North is likely to be considerably higher, as while Northern Rail provided figures for its affected services, Trans Pennine did not.

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