Harrogate weighs up consequences of rail U-turn that enraged the north

Amid the anger and hurt over the Government’s partial U-turn on rail improvements in the North last week there was one main question on the lips of Harrogate passengers - how will it affect us?

Friday, 26th November 2021, 3:21 pm
Updated Friday, 26th November 2021, 3:28 pm
Despite the furore across the North, the mood in Harrogate over changes to the Integrated Rail Plan remained one of disappointment rather than outrage.

The answer in the short run is not much, though the view further down the line may not be quite as rosy.

Despite the furore across the North at the news plans for a new high-speed HS2 eastern line from London to Leeds - first announced in 2012 by then Secretary of State for Transport, Justine Greening - had been scrapped, the mood in Harrogate over changes to the Integrated Rail Plan remained one of disappointment rather than outrage.

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Reacting to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s change of heart, Brian Dunsby, OBE of Harrogate Line Supporters Group, said: “I am disappointed but not really surprised by the Government’s decision to drop the HS2b Eastern Leg of the HS2 programme due to all the objections raised in South Yorkshire coupled with the escalating cost of the HS2 scheme.

“But on the plus side, Harrogate passengers are now getting the benefit of a two-hourly service to London Kings Cross.

“The LNER AZUMA services are a massive improvement on the old London trains whilst the use of hybrid electric/diesel services enables them to service Harrogate whilst our line remains non-electrified. In just a few week’s time we will also see the services between Leeds and York via Harrogate doubled - with the current Leeds-Knaresborough services extended all the way to York every half-hour.”

Although the new version of plans for the Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) scheme has been slammed by the interim chair of Transport for the North as “woefully inadequate”, the Government said its £96 billion package to overhaul inter-city links across the north and Midlands amounted to the biggest ever public investment in Britain’s rail network and would still bring significant improvements.

Harrogate and Knaresborough MP Andrew Jones described the cancellation of plans for an HS2 Eastern Leg as “disappointing”.

But, he added, the end result was still a “big win” for rail passengers in the North with proposals that would deliver benefits ten years earlier than expected under the original HS2 proposals.

Mr Jones, who is currently co-chair of the Transport Across The North All Party Parliament Group, said: “I have long been a vocal supporter of HS2 and was disappointed that the Eastern Leg has been cancelled, but it turns out that the picture is more complex.

“My first impression is of the scale of the announcement. £96 billion in spending is a major investment. The question for me was how quickly the schemes can be delivered, how we maximise the benefits.

“I asked about that in the House of Commons. The answer was that HS2 would not have reached Leeds until the 2040s.

“These proposals deliver benefits ten years earlier than that. That is good for the levelling up agenda, but especially positive for our environment.”

The revised plans for rail improvements in the north cut the budget to £96bn with reports also suggesting that only £40bn of that is actually new funding.

But former rail minister, Mr Jones MP, argues the end result will still be faster journey times.

“The revised plans deliver a range of benefits for the north - benefits in terms of new lines, increased capacity and improved journey times,” he said.

“In fact, the outputs are similar to the outputs of the previous plans but there are more benefits.”

Although the Harrogate line has benefited in recent years from a series of improvements, its long-term future and hopes for better now rest, to a degree, on how it fits in with the rest of the rail network.

Words like “betrayal of trust”, “levelling up let down” and a “great train robbery” have been heard a lot over the last week, sometimes from the Government’s own MPs.

Harrogate’s language is usually more measured in tone.

And it wasn’t just the HS2 Eastern Leg which caused disappointment.

Prior to last week’s watering down of rail modernisation schemes in Yorkshire and the north, Harrogate passengers had been pinning their hopes on improvements to east-west connections - in particular, a new east-west rail line connecting Liverpool to Hull via Manchester, Bradford and Leeds.”

A frustrated Brian Dunsby added: “As well as cancelling the HS2 Eastern Leg, the Government has scaled back the high-speed east-west connections.

“It’s very disappointing that all our efforts to convince the DFT and Network Rail have come to very little on our side of the Pennines.”

Not quite a “rail betrayal” but certainly not quite the future that had been hoped for - or promised by the Government.