Northern Powerhouse Rail and HS2 changes: councillors clash over whether Lancashire has been left behind or is in line for big benefits

A row has broken out between senior Lancashire politicians over the government’s revised rail plans for the North.

Thursday, 18th November 2021, 6:31 pm
Updated Thursday, 18th November 2021, 9:06 pm

The Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, has unveiled a long-awaited blueprint for how to better connect cities and towns on the East-West corridor across the region – and how these would link in to existing plans for the HS2 high speed link to London.

The £96bn integrated rail plan sparked controversy across the political divide in the North and Midlands after it scrapped a promised full-length high speed connection between Manchester and Leeds and replaced it with a new line for some of the route and upgrades to existing track. Part of the Eastern leg of HS2 will also not go ahead.

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Has Lancashire been left out of the big rail plan for the North?

However, Lancashire County Council’s opposition Labour group leader said that it was Lancashire that had come off worst under the proposals – having effectively been “wiped off the map” by ministers.

Azhar Ali said that the savings made compared to the original design of the project known as “Northern Powerhouse Rail” should have been ploughed into local lines that would have benefited Lancashire.

“After all the hot air and the promises from Boris Johnson about levelling up, what we got for Lancashire was a big fat zero. There is not a single penny that’s coming to the county that’s going to make a massive difference in terms of infrastructure and connectivity in the next few years to the people of Lancashire.

“[Given] that they have scrapped the new line from Leeds to Manchester, they could have said we are going to electrify [the lines] all the way through from Liverpool to Skipton [as an alternative] – but there is no mention of that.

“They might come out with more studies, saying they’re going to develop [plans] in phase whatever – but it’s just more delay and dither. Lancashire has been wiped off the map in terms of connectivity and getting a boost to transport infrastructure.

“When he was asked about smaller projects like the Poulton to Fleetwood link, Grant Shapps didn’t have anything to say – Lancashire has been let down once again, County Cllr Ali claimed.

However, Lancashire County Council’s cabinet member for transport Charlie Edwards rubbished the Labour leader’s characterisation of the rail plan. He said that the document was not the place where smaller-scale projects would be announced – and stressed that there nevertheless plenty of benefits to Lancashire in what was actually unveiled.

“If County Cllr Ali says that Lancashire isn’t mentioned, then he needs to read the thing first.

“London to Preston will go from 128 minutes to 78 minutes once the integrated rail plan core pipeline has been delivered. That means Preston is within the commuter belt of London – you could quite easily commute from Preston to Euston [in that scenario].

“At the moment, it’s really hard to get from Preston to Leeds, but because we’re now not doing a [completely new] line, the upgrades to the existing line will improve the Preston to Leeds service.

“[Lancashire is] referred to throughout – one thing that has been the result of a huge amount of lobbying from myself is the fact that Lancaster is mentioned when it talks about HS2 and the fact that HS2 services are going to stop at Lancaster.

“It was also recently announced that the number of trains from Morecambe to Lancaster would be more than doubling on Sundays [from five to 12]. And Monday to Saturday, the current six trains per day service is increased to eight per day - with a more even and passenger-friendly timetable pattern.

“I think it’s disgusting the way that left-wing politicians have treated this document and investment in the North. £96bn is not ‘crumbs off the table’ – it’s more than we’ve had in generations,” County Cllr Edwards said.

The reopening of the Fleetwood to Poulton line was the subject of a recent £100,000 feasibility study, the results of which are now being considered as one of the advanced proposals as part of the government’s Restoring Your Railway Fund.

Earlier this week, it emerged that Lancaster City Council would be meeting a rail minister over concerns that direct trains to London could be scrapped under future HS2 arrangements. The authority fears that passengers from Lancaster would have to catch a service to Preston, before getting on another to London.

The integrated rail plan notes that a Crewe Hub as part of HS2 would allow 400 metre-long trains from London to split, “with 200m units progressing to each of Liverpool and Lancaster [and] the reverse would occur with services from Liverpool and Lancaster”.

It adds: “Subject to decisions on the recent Phase 2b Western Leg Design Refinement Consultation[,] the Government continues to consider that the strategic rationale for the Crewe Northern Connection is strong, and that it would be better constructed as part of the Western Leg scheme to Manchester, rather than subsequently. It has therefore been included within the IRP core pipeline.”

During his announcement in the House of Commons, Grant Shapps said that the rationale for some of the changes to previously-announced rail plans was a “a desire to deliver sooner” – up to a decade in advance of past proposals.

WHAT’S COMING DOWN THE TRACK FOR LANCASHIRE?

Five potential Lancashire rail projects were submitted as part of the third round of the Restoring Your Railway “ideas fund” earlier this year – bidding for a 75 percent government contribution, up to £50,000, of the costs of economic studies and the creation of business cases to support the proposals.

However, only one of them – to reconnect Rawtenstall and Manchester – was successful when the outcome of the process was announced late last month. There is now no imminent prospect of studies into the other suggestions – to re-open Midge Hall Station in South Ribble, which closed in 1961; to reinstate the 1.4-mile stretch of track known as the “Burscough Curves”, which would allow for direct train travel between Preston and Southport; to build a new station at Coppull in Chorley, over 50 years after the previous stop closed; and to make various improvements in and around Pendle.