The Integrated Rail Plan – Destroying Planet, People and Places

The humorously named ‘Integrated Rail Plan’ was released this week. It’s a sprawling plan to level down the UK’s rail network at the detriment of the environment, the country and people’s futures. It could also destroy the Conservative Party itself.

Nov 19, 2021

By Jason Lowe

Climate emergency

In the week after COP26 concluded, the UK Government is already breaking its pledges to transition to a green economy.

The two greatest sources of emissions in the UK are from transport and manufacturing. The UK has made conscious decisions to ensure our transport is carbon-based rather than green. Like the US, the UK decided to build a vast network of high-speed roads on top of the local A and B roads to connect our cities – but Westminster didn’t build a network of high-speed railways on top of the Victorian infrastructure. Westminster established that car was to be king for domestic journeys and air was to be king for longer distances. It resulted in a climate emergency. 

If we are serious about restoring Earth, which we must remember is the only home we have for all life that we know, we need to make changes to our way of life now. Instead, the Government have decided to dump a transformative plan that’s been in the works for over 10 years to instead fund more feasibility studies (you may know them as ‘blah blah blah’) and delay any change by at least another 10 years. Either the Government aren’t aware that the planet is dying, or they don’t care. 

This was a plan that would have made journeys between all cities of the UK quicker by rail than by road. It was a plan that would have made the need for domestic flights redundant. It was a plan that would have freed up millions of tonnes of capacity for freight on our railway lines and taken millions of HGVs off the roads.

Establishing Northerners as second class citizens

The North of England has been shafted again. It would be a comedy if it didn’t affect the lives of millions of people, but transport has been proven to be the number one key factor in how successful an area is. People who live in areas with fast, frequent and affordable transport are exponentially more likely to get high-paying jobs and climb career ladders. 

Let’s compare the difference of a young person growing up in London to the north. Big business has been attracted to the city through excellent transport. Those businesses are interviewing for positions where they want people to be able to access the office, even if working remotely most of the time. Young people in London can simply jump on a TfL (Transport for London) discounted Tube or bus at a second’s notice and be at an interview in under an hour.

In the north, if you’re lucky enough to be close to adequate public transport, you’ll need enough money to afford it – for the £3 bus to the station, the £10 train to the city, another operator’s £3 bus from the station to the interview and after all of this, it’ll likely take the best part of 2-3 hours each way. Of course, you might not even get the job and need to do the same again, and again, and again. It’s simply unaffordable.

Many rely on their parents to be a taxi service but for working parents trying to make a living, most can’t just dump their work to take their children to an interview.

Volt is not against London – all parts of the UK need investment, but it’s obscene that £20bn can be so easily spent on one line in one city, whereas similar costs for two lines that would serve 8 cities are cut. Yesterday, the Government announced that the upward cycle of wealth in London will continue and the downward spiral of poverty in the north is to be reinforced.

Why upgrades won’t work

This is at least the fourth time I can remember that Transpennine Electrification has been announced. Anyone who has travelled between Leeds and Manchester will know that no progress has been made on this – and for good reason too. Every time the politicians try to start the project, they realise it’s not feasible. They want to retrofit overhead wires with 100mph running to tracks built for slow steam engines over 150 years ago. To do this would require shutting down the line every weekend for years, causing enormous disruption and severing the north’s economy.

It’s a similar story on the East Coast main line, which the Government has announced they’ll try to upgrade short sections of to 140mph to bring journey times down. The problem – HS2 was never about speed. Sure, if you’re going to build a new line you might as well make it a fast new line with 21st century technology, but let’s remind ourselves of why we are building new lines in the first place. The current main lines are full. There’s no more space to run any more trains. It means that today, if one train encounters just a minute delay, there are knock-on effects right across the network as other trains get stuck behind the delayed train. With no wiggle room, it regularly results in national misery for rail travellers.

Levelling down capacity

We now know that the Government will not be increasing the capacity of the rail network in the north or East Midlands, but the unheard story is far more worrying. Upgrading old local lines to faster, intercity focused lines means service frequency will drop to most local stations. It’s very simple. If you want to run 6 trains per hour between Leeds and Manchester on existing lines, but you want them to do it in 33 minutes rather than 50, you need to get the stopping trains out of the way to make way for the fast train to speed through. It’s textbook 101 in how to reduce capacity.

It could mean that stations that today are served every 15 minutes may only receive a train every hour – and that train will be causing delays to the fast trains. It’s a lose-lose situation.

The need for new lines to separate local and intercity services has been clear for decades now – and most other developed countries did it years ago.

The UK announced we’re incapable of big infrastructure

Remember May’s ‘Global Britain’? In the light of Brexit, we were supposed to be sending messages out that we’re stronger than ever and can stay competitive with the superpowers of the world.

We’re not just comparing ourselves to China here. In the time that Government have been stalling the UK over HS2 (which if they knew they were going to cancel a year ago, why not just tell us so we could make alternative plans), Morocco has opened 200 miles of high-speed rail, Turkey has opened 300 miles and even public-transport fearing USA is building California High Speed Rail.

Meanwhile, in the country that invented railways, we’ve shown we can’t even connect two of our biggest cities that are less than 40 miles apart.

The Conservative question

Of course, the corridors of Whitehall are now full of fear. Grant Shapps tried to dress this up like an improvement. Everybody saw through it and the backlash was near universal, including from Conservative backbenchers.

For many newly elected backbenchers, this was their chance to show that you can trust a Tory. That Tories will deliver on their promises. The voters of northern England gave them a once-in-a-lifetime chance to prove their worth and show that they would deliver on their promises.

This announcement has just destroyed that. If you had decided to trust a Tory, you certainly wouldn’t now. Unless this Government performs a rapid u-turn, this will be the biggest political betrayal in modern times. Most sensible Conservatives will know this and not look forward to needing to pretend they are still delivering, which raises the question ‘is there a future for the Conservative Party?’

The problem is that even if you were personally against HS2, this was a flagship promise of Boris Johnson’s Government and had been repeated frequently over the years. It is a clear broken promise and there is no way to now deny that it was all only ever a lie to get him into power. So if he is now further proven to break promises, can a traditionally Conservative voter even trust the party leadership? Remember, his whole cabinet was behind this announcement – including future leaders.

Conclusion

No matter what angle you come at this from, it’s bad news. Even for anti-HS2 campaigners who live(d) on the route and have already had their lives uprooted – it was all for nothing. It’s bad news for the economy, it’s bad news for society and it’s disastrous news for the environment.

Volt will continue to campaign towards the expansion and development of the European High Speed Rail network, including the UK’s piece of the jigsaw. Take a look at our proposals to make high-speed rail investment legally binding at https://www.volteuropa.org/eurotrain