Grant Shapps is Transport Secretary, and is MP for Welwyn Hatfield.
Forgive a Conservative Cabinet Minister for citing a Labour Prime Minister in approving terms, but one of my favourite quotations on railways comes from the opposite side of the House. Not a real Prime Minister, to be accurate, but a fictional one. Harry Perkins, the Sheffield steelworker’s son who takes on the Establishment and loses in A Very British Coup.
Asked by a reporter if he intends to abolish first class rail travel now that he is in power, at the head of a radical Left-wing government, our Harry replies: ‘No, I’m going to abolish second class rail travel. I think we’re all first class. Don’t you?’
Perkins may have had the wrong Idea about many things, but he was right on this. For years now, the successful South East, and particularly London, has sucked in rail investment. The argument in Whitehall goes something like this. London is the cash cow; the goose that lays the golden eggs.
Spend on infrastructure there, and in the prosperous hinterland supplying its commuters, and you will get bang for your taxpayers’ buck. The “business case” is overwhelming. Why risk spending in the North or other supposedly far-flung places, when you can be sure of a good return on your investment by shipping white-collar workers into the City?
This is one of those circular arguments that ensures nothing changes. Reinforce economic strength and punish relative weakness, and you get what I call the transport deficit, resulting in a lopsided rail network that impedes the spread of prosperity.
While commuters into London enjoy new trains, their counterparts in Manchester and elsewhere have in many cases put up with old or second-hand rolling stock. And the routes these trains run on are more likely to be narrower, more congested and more prone to delay.
For far too long, the North, cradle of the Industrial Revolution, has had to put up with rail infrastructure bequeathed from that time. Take the Trans-Pennine route from Manchester to Leeds. This corridor through rolling moorland is completely inadequate as a link between two great cities and the other cities – Liverpool, York and Newcastle – that connect through it. Much of it is two-track, meaning that fast trains must jumble up with local stopping services, slowing everything down. It is badly in need of electrification to speed services and make them greener.
I’ll let a regular user of this line describe her experience of this route, using it to reach Manchester from her home in Marsden before she gave up in frustration.
‘Standing room only at peak times is a given. Home time is worst – trains regularly cancelled, so it means platforms are crammed with two or three trainloads of stressed-out people, and when the train eventually arrives it is every man and woman for themselves. People just surging forward knowing that if you don’t you will be left on the platform. Then the poor conductor comes round to throw people off who’d otherwise be hanging out of the doors.
There are fights – not surprisingly. People just want to get home after a hard day. Most people are amazingly restrained, though, given the appalling service and the huge sums of money they pay to use it. A sort of “What do you expect? It’s the North”. A hellish commute, which is why I started to drive in.’
Many people in the North took a chance on the Conservatives at the last election. They put aside old loyalties, not only because of Brexit, but because they saw a glimmer of opportunity – a Prime Minister prepared to tear up the rulebook of North-South politics. Go on,they said, prove us right.
Which is why I’m in Manchester today, surveying the view from Piccadilly Station with Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Manchester. Politically, we are the odd couple – hardly natural allies.
But we share a desire to rectify this transport deficit, and get things moving. This is practical politics, getting together to solve problems that do not discriminate when it comes to party affiliation. But this emphasis on delivery will work for Conservative MPs across the North, too. Particularly those who helped to demolish the Red Wall ,and who now occupy marginals in which expectations are high.
There will be more of this with the Northern Transport Acceleration Council, which I formally announce today. This will bring together ministers from the Department for Transport – junior ministers or me – and mayors and council leaders, Tory and Labour, to thrash out ways to cut through red tape and build new transport infrastructure quickly, in the life of this parliament. NTAC is about doing.
We are “doing” already. Today, this Government committed some £600 million to kickstart the upgrading of the Trans-Pennine Route and begin the process of ending commuter misery. Four tracks will replace two on key stretches initially, easing congestion. And there are plans for full electrification, digital signalling and more four-tracking in future.
We know projects like this must proceed, despite the blow delivered by Covid-19 to the economy. Growth is the key to our recovery, and that means infrastructure: green infrastructure that future-proofs our transport system as we face the challenge of climate change.
Burnham was generous in his praise for these initial steps, describing them as a gear change. The best aspect of this Government is it willingness to experiment, not only with solutions to problems that affect us all but in relationships with others who may not fully share our beliefs.
Pragmatism must be our ideology. Conservatives are best when they tackle problems in a rational, practical way. It’s what people expect of us.
At the last election, former Labour voters in the North and elsewhere lent us their votes in a gigantic experiment. After decades of barely-managed decline they are hungry for success. They only desire the tools to get on with the job. We must supply them and set the North free.