As the prime minister breaks yet another promise, once again he sends out one of his saps to give us the news. Last week it was Steve Barclay, a man so anonymous blood pressure meters keep thinking he’s died. This week, the lucky winner is Grant Shapps.
The transport secretary is a man whose principal talent is to keep talking whilst maintaining a smile that would only look appropriate in rigor mortis. The only other group capable of such mendacious jollity are teachers forced to sample “something we made in food tech, sir”.
Shapps’s task this week is to explain how, in the absence of both HS2 to Sheffield and Leeds and the ‘Northern Powerhouse Rail’ programmes which were earnestly promised in the 2019 Conservative manifesto, existing lines between Manchester and Leeds via Bradford are instead “to be upgraded”.
Whatever that is.
What’s so unrealistic about a high-speed link via Bradford?
No matter that the sums involved (£20bn–30bn) are about, er £20–30bn short of what it would actually cost. The real issue is that no sensible person who’s actually travelled to Bradford by train would have reacted with anything other than rictus laughter.
Granted, it would make the commute more bearable than the tinnitus induced by the pain-level squealing of wheels on bends so tight that derailment always feels a moment away.
I did that commute for about 15 years. By car, especially once the smart motorway was finished, Wakefield to Bradford takes about 40 minutes. By train, it’s about two hours. I did it out of some crazed environmental commitment and because, for a while, it was actually cheaper. The extra time on the train could be used for reading or working (mornings) or sleeping (afternoons).
Bradford is hard to reach
The problem for Bradford reads like a curriculum for a 1950’s fictional grammar school: history, geography and physics.
Historically, Bradford developed organically and rapidly: around 1800, the population was 13,000; by 1870, it was 145,000. Its growth, up hills and along valleys, swallowed surrounding villages. Roads grew out of footpaths and the only town planning was done by mill owners who clustered terraced housing around the factories so people would be on time. It’s still there, as are the footpaths-cum-roads.
Geographically, roads have to follow the contours and none of the 19th century housing can be demolished. Anyone who’s ever driven up the M606 for the first time expecting a Sheffield Parkway or Mancunian Way-style drive into the city centre can marvel at the way it just stops two miles short and then goes sideways into residential housing. As for rail, one line from Leeds goes down the Aire Valley through Shipley and closes every time there’s heavy rain, while the other goes via Pudsey winding its way through tunnels and cuttings at speeds of up to 40mph to Bradford Interchange. Once there, the driver has to get out, swap ends and drive back out the same way to do a similar journey onwards to Halifax.
Physics: You can only go so fast round a bend and trains don’t go up steep hills.
The impact on Northern Tories
Tories making promises about this have always been one of three possibilities:
- Liars. It’s a Johnson government elected on unicorn Brexit promises, so no shock revelations there, sadly.
- Stupid. There are toddlers developing rudimentary language skills who would have found from their Brio train set that such a railway is never going to go very quickly.
- Out of touch. The interface of millionaires, hack journos and former UKIP moles that seems to make up the cabinet are guaranteed never to have used the train from Leeds to Manchester Victoria via Bramley, New Pudsey, Bradford Interchange, Low Moor, Halifax, Sowerby Bridge, Mytholmroyd, Hebden Bridge, Todmorden, Rochdale and Manchester Victoria. Commuters can reel it off like war veterans reel off their numbers. Mind you, they usually append the words “is delayed by…”
You could probably build an escalator to the moon, one of the PM’s attention-distracting bridges, or pay Serco to walk the dog, for less than it would cost to build high-speed rail to Bradford. You have to feel sorry for the city: the one-time engine of the Industrial Revolution exploited its proximity to canals, coalmines and sheep. Trouble is, the canal’s dried up, the pits have shut and the sheep all went to work for Visit Yorkshire.
Even worse, it’s not on the way to anywhere else. Its shops are all in Leeds, its National Museum is so bad it keeps having to change its name, and its mills don’t make textiles any more. The city’s schools face challenges in the most difficult 10 percent of every category known to influence attainment. The last time it attracted significant central government investment was after a riot.
If anywhere needs some sort of break, it’s Bradford.
Commuting to Bradford by train
Instead, the trains on the Leeds-Bradford-Manchester route are the fag-ends of rolling stock. On my commute, decisions were influenced by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, with the addition of finding a working toilet. Improvisation was key: a toilet deemed OUT OF ORDER was no impediment to the emptying of bladder or bowel. The trains were so old the doors could easily be forced open. Needs must, as us commuters used to say as we breathed in each other’s expelled air.
As for overcrowding, my favourite memory was when a service of normally four units was replaced by a SINGLE Pacer, inducing conditions reminiscent of a developing country, or scenes from that War of the Worlds remake where Tom Cruise runs away a lot until the aliens die. As it prepared to leave, I promise you I heard the following announcement:
“We apologise for the overcrowding. If anyone would like to complain, the personal email address of Joe Soap, logistics director is…”
What does this have to do with levelling up?
First, it shows that the promises of investment are made in total ignorance of northern transport realities. Second, it shows how easy it is to invent a bright and shiny soundbite.
In Johnson’s speech in July 2019 in Manchester, he said he wanted “to be the prime minister who does with Northern Powerhouse Rail what we did for Crossrail in London”.
For a man who has spent his entire life saying what he thinks people want to hear, as if he were still taking an exam, this was as natural as breathing. Trouble is, some vital people are starting to publicly question his sincerity and commitment.
Just today on the BBC News, Henri Murison, chief executive of Northern Powerhouse Rail, called on the PM “to deliver”. Tory MP for Stocksbridge, Miriam Cates, used her 23 October Yorkshire Post column to “publicly change (her) mind on HS2”. This outbreak of independent thought no doubt was influenced by a desire to distance herself from a PM who is becoming increasingly toxic. In seats where former Labour voters ‘loaned’ their votes rather than switching loyalties completely, this makes sitting MPs nervous enough to cut-and-run.
If this is what previously loyal Tories are prepared to say, one can only speculate what voters in so-called ‘northern wall’ seats might think next time they go to the ballot box.