The failure of successive governments to build 330 miles of railway lines reflects the wider failures of British politics
It’s the morning after the night before. Across the country, people begin to stir. They pour their cups of coffee, they butter their toast, and they turn on the news. Boris Johnson has won the 2019 general election for the Conservative party, with a thumping majority of 80 seats. The Labour party of Jeremy Corbyn is in utter disarray, with their so called “red wall” of seats in northern England in pieces, replaced by a corresponding “blue wall” of Conservative MPs. The question over why the red wall crumbled will haunt journalists for years to come- was it because of Brexit? Was it a fear of Corbyn? Was it a distrust in Labour over the economy? Was it the promise of “levelling up”?
If the fall of the red wall was for any of those reasons, then the voters who switched from Labour to Conservative must be severely disappointed. Brexit has arguably been a failure- the “oven ready deal” that Johnson campaigned on in 2019 didn’t exist and the flourishing economy that voters were promised is now in the shackles of a cost-of-living crisis affecting millions. Even Brexiteer-in-Chief Nigel Farage admitted on Newsnight that Brexit has been a failure (of course, he still believes in the cause, but the admission speaks volumes), and I am sure that the 3 million people who were recipients of a food bank parcel last year would agree. Voters who feared Corbyn and how he would handle the economy must be laughing- after 49 days of a Liz Truss government, a Corbyn economy must seem like utopian bliss.
Arguably, the promise of Johnson to “level up” is why so many of the red wall voters switched over to the Conservatives. Whether or not you believed in Brexit, the promise of billions being invested into deprived areas was an appealing policy. Part of the levelling up agenda announced in 2019 included a commitment to invest in Northern Powerhouse Rail between Leeds and Manchester with a focus on Liverpool, Tees Valley, Hull, Sheffield and Newcastle as part of a £100bn National Infrastructure Strategy. These rail connections relied on an existing and ongoing rail project, High Speed Two (HS2), but as all major parties had committed to this in 2010, voters did not appear concerned that Northern Powerhouse Rail, or even HS2, would not be able to go ahead. Levelling up was happening, and people were turning out in their dozens to vote for Johnson’s Conservative party.
HS2 is the high-speed rail network that was planned to link London and major cities in the north and the midlands. Proposed in 2010, the line was meant to connect London with Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, but in 2021 the Leeds leg was scrapped over concerns surrounding the rising cost of the project, and during the Conservative Party Conference in October 2023, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced that the line between Birmingham and Manchester was going to be abandoned in favour of spending the money on local infrastructure. What was once a revolutionary project, designed to link London with the north via high-speed rail, and create hubs between major northern cities, is now a journey from Birmingham Curzon Street Station to London Euston. He has said that the line will run up to Manchester, just not at high speed like the initial promise.
HS2 has failed. The dreams of high-speed rail linking the country is just that. A dream. A dream that has cost the government £100 billion, and that isn’t including the cost of the trains. How has the government of a G7 country failed so horribly at something that should be so simple- France has just commissioned 203 miles of high-speed rail starting in Bordeaux, and this is estimated to cost £12 billion. That is double the length of the London to Birmingham route, at just 12% of the cost. So why has HS2 been so expensive compared to other countries? The answer is simple- a large amount of the route that HS2 takes cuts through marginal Conservative constituencies, and so the residents must be consulted, and MPs must be appeased. Additionally, the cost of building supplies has increased with inflation and the war in Ukraine, and the actual building of tracks and creating tunnels is expensive. Despite these factors, the fact that it has taken a government nine years to get the building of 330 miles of railway tracks underway is shameful, and the lack of this railway network will be felt across the country.
The lack of HS2 will be felt most notably in the north of England, as the proposed project of Northern Powerhouse Rail relies on a section of track between Manchester and Liverpool being shared with the HS2 line. Now that HS2 is not being built, the lack of this section of the line throws the future of Northern Powerhouse Rail into question. Even if Rishi Sunak is promising £36 billion in transport infrastructure for the north, this doesn’t answer the question of how this issue is going to be solved. It also doesn’t fix the fact that these plans have been in the works for years, and he has let down the north, again. As Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham said at a fringe event at the Conservative Party Conference, “This will be remembered as the conference when they pulled the plug on us. What gives them the right to treat people here in Greater Manchester and the north of England as second-class citizens?”. Sunak is not only facing criticism from members of the Labour Party- the Conservative politician Andy Street said at an impromptu press conference that “[Sunak] will be turning [his] back on an opportunity to level up – a once-in-a-generation opportunity.” Burnham and Street are right. People of the north have consistently been treated as second class citizens, and it speaks to the wider views of the Conservative government that they are cancelling a project that would create a powerful northern economy, one that could potentially grow to provide huge benefits for the country. This let down of the north is potentially going to be what costs Sunak the general election- if you were promised levelling up in 2019, why on earth would you believe in anything else the Conservatives promise you?
The cancellation of HS2 is not levelling up by any stretch of the imagination. This is not the country that those red-turned-blue-wall voters were promised in 2019. This is an abject failure by a government that is tumbling down in the opinion polls, trying to grasp onto anything that might save them. Scrapping HS2 will not be their saving grace. True investment in the north means ensuring that levelling up is not just a campaign slogan but is something that people can point to and say that it was a genuine success. Levelling up was always meant to be about giving funds where they were most needed- if HS2 is not deemed worthy, other causes must be found.