Bernard Trafford despairs as cock-up is redesignated as levelling up.
I started writing this last Friday afternoon, on a London-bound train stuck outside Birmingham. The delay’s caused by a trespasser on the line. All trains in both directions were halted for over an hour. Mind you, at the time I had no idea that friends trying to reach Berwick upon Tweed by train were blocked by the ravages of Storm Arwen, still being felt today (Monday): I suspect the replacement bus-or-snowplough service is still in operation on that bit of the East Coast Line.
Ironically, you might think that, at this moment, I’d look kindly on a new line that would cut thirty minutes off my journey (trespassers permitting). But no: not even under Friday’s circumstances.
That 30-minute reduction in trains connecting England’s first two cities, the first of many ambitious claims for HS2, prompted comedienne Sandi Toksvig to advise travellers simply to get an earlier train. For Northerners, slashing the London-Brum journey time was a matter of supreme indifference.
Nowadays the rhetoric’s all about levelling up, a mantra monotonously repeated to explain almost every policy or, indeed, U-turn – including the announcement that, after all, HS2 will not get as far as Leeds, its long-stated ultimate destination. It will reach Manchester: but hapless Bradford won’t receive its longed-for connection.
Leeds was the goal because Westminster seems to think it is the North, with nothing of note beyond it. Just the rest of Yorkshire, York, Durham, the large conurbation of Tyne and Wear, the former coal-and-steel heartlands of Teesside… oh, and then there’s Northumberland and, beyond it, the Scottish capital. Similarly, the North West ends at Crewe, the cities of Lancashire and Cumbria also overlooked.
As Leeds mourns, Nottingham can rejoice. The mysteriously-titled East Midlands Parkway will be created somewhere near, but not in, that city, echoing RyanAir’s reputation for siting continental airports, for example, some 20 kilometres away from the destinations whose names they bear.
Tory MPs in former Red Wall seats have stoically attempted to celebrate this bombshell. By transferring slashed HS2 billions to upgrades on existing lines, we’re assured, improvements will come years earlier. You might wait till 2030 for the East Midlands Parkway, but only five years until Newcastle and Edinburgh (which finally got a mention) enjoy more, longer trains and a whole fifteen minutes off the trip to London.
Rail experts (not those working for Government, of course) pour scorn on the plans. The whole point of HS2 (like it or loathe it) was to provide new, additional, superfast lines. An upgrade might arrive sooner, and passing places (yes, really!) will allow a few additional trains in service: but, it’s mere tinkering, which could have been achieved years ago.
Why didn’t they start at the far end from London, building first in the North, the North-East and Scotland? The North-East might have been feeling some benefit already.
Myopic, southern-orientated planners are incapable of that kind of thought. Far from lifting up their eyes unto the hills, as the scripture says, they can barely look beyond Watford Gap.
Arrogant government insists that London, not the North, sees the shiny first fruits of its grand projet, even one that was never thought through and has now run into the sand – or into East Midlands Parkway, wherever that is. It doesn’t matter: it’s just North!
Levelling up? You’re joking. This Cabinet wouldn’t recognise it if a spirit-level poked them in the eye. Too little, too late, the new plan’s a fig-leaf concocted to conceal utter, banal failure.
This week, when power returns to North Northumberland, we Traffords will depart Oxford to drive up to Godzone,. Ten or fifteen years from now, maybe we’ll feel we’re getting too elderly to make that 310-mile trek by car. Maybe we’ll be able to do it by train. Maybe even on an improved, faster line.
Or maybe we’ll be whizzed at lightning speed up to the East Midlands Parkway, chucked off the train there and left to ask someone, like Robin Hood by the famous Hadrian’s Wall tree, “Which way’s Nottingham?”
They’ll point vaguely, but unmistakeably, North: and off we’ll trudge.
By the way, I did get to London. 110 minutes late.