MPs have urged the government to reconsider its cuts to rail projects across the north and midlands – warning that ministers are “letting down” the regions.
The government’s integrated rail plan published in November scrapped a planned high-speed line from Birmingham to Leeds and watered down proposals for a new east-west rail corridor across the north.
Ministers have also rejected calls for a new station in Bradford, and earlier this year cut back planned HS2 services to Scotland by scrapping the so-called “Golborne link” without proposing an alternative.
In a new report released on Wednesday the transport select committee said the government would not meet its so-called “levelling-up” goals unless it reconsidered its approach.
“The Government’s levelling-up agenda commits it to ending geographical inequality in the UK. However, by underserving the rail needs of the North of England it is letting down those who require change the most,” the cross-party committee report says.
One of the largest cuts was to the Northern Powerhouse Rail project, which was meant to consist of a new high-speed railway linking cities linking Liverpool, Manchester, Bradford and Leeds up to York and Newcastle.
But after months of internal government negotiations the rail corridor was cut back to its bare bones, with large parts set to be delivered with upgrades to existing lines.
“Upgrading lines will undoubtedly bring modest benefits to rail services in the North and Midlands, but not to the transformative extent necessary to end regional imbalances,” the MPs said.
“The evidence base for the IRP must be reconsidered in the light of these aims, if this once-in-a-generation investment in rail is not to be a missed opportunity.”
The Department for Transport defended its work and said its rail programme was “the largest single rail investment ever made by a UK government”.
But the MPs are calling for the Department for Transport to review its decision to hobble Northern Powerhouse Rail and cancel HS2’s eastern leg, this time taking into account the cuts’ impact on levelling up.
If a more expensive option offers the “best potential value” then ministers “must grasp that nettle”, the committee says. They say the department must come forward with new calculations about the benefits and costs of different options by March next year.
“Extra costs are not to be incurred lightly, but a significantly better outcome for our economy and communities is a worthwhile investment for generations into the future,” they conclude.
The committee also says the governemnt needs to bring forward plans for a replacement for the Golborne link by March, to make sure HS2 services to Scotland are not undermined.
And they argued that the government should include provision for HS2’s eastern leg to Leeds to be un-cancelled in the future, by building the necessary infrastructure along the mainline.
Conservative MP Huw Merriman, who chairs the Transport Committee, said the governemnt’s investment had the “potential to transform rail travel for future generations”.
But he added: “However, many towns and cities are already disappointed by the proposals which have been set out.
“The Prime Minister promised that he would, with Northern Powerhouse Rail, do for the North what he did for Londoners with Crossrail. Instead, much of the track will be an upgrade of existing line. The business case of HS2 was based on it going east to Leeds.
“Now, it stops in the East Midlands without any understanding of how much money is saved. Those we spoke to from the cities of Leeds and Bradford, in particular, do not recognise that the finalised plans meet either the promises they believe were made or the Prime Minister’s stated aims.”
He added: “We ask Government to revisit the evidence base for the decisions they have reached. In recommending this reassessment, we are mindful of a previous Transport Committee report which challenged the Government on its ability to deliver major infrastructure projects.
“Ministers must be cautious but transparent about the benefits that can be delivered by the Integrated Rail Plan. It is ambitious and exciting but public and stakeholders, especially in the North and Midlands, must be able to see that the benefits of the current proposals outweigh the other options which have been put forward.”
Louise Haigh, Labour’s shadow Transport Secretary, said communities were “paying the price for broken Tory promises on rail, which will leave the north and midlands in the slow lane for decades to come”.
She added: “After 12 years of failure, people are sick and tired of the empty words of this discredited government – and the continuity Tory leadership candidates only offer more of the same. A Labour government would deliver infrastructure fit for the twenty-first century, and give Britain the fresh start it needs.”
A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “The Government’s £96 billion Integrated Rail Plan is the largest single rail investment ever made by a UK Government, and this report significantly underplays the benefits it will bring to millions of passengers for generations to come.
“The Plan, which is backed by detailed economic analysis, is already benefitting our regions with 26,000 jobs created for the HS2 project alone, and will deliver transformational benefits to communities across the North and Midlands, far sooner than under previous plans.”