The Government’s new rail plan makes a mockery of ‘levelling up’

This column has long viewed HS2 as an overpriced vanity project. And now the eastern extension of this high-speed super-train, from Birmingham to Leeds, has hit the buffers[1].   The case for spending tens of billions of pounds on a 250mph train line over relatively short distances has always been shaky.

But shorn of one of its two links from the Midlands to the North, HS2 now makes even less sense. Since this project was launched in 2010, the proposed route has remained unchanged – with Phase 1 running from London to Birmingham, phase 2A from Birmingham to Manchester, and 2B from Birmingham to Leeds.  But the Government’s Integrated Rail Plan last week confirmed that the right-hand side of the “Y” will be severely curtailed, stopping at a new East Midlands Parkway station, just outside Nottingham.

Existing rail services, not a high-speed link, will complete the route to Leeds.  The case for HS2 has changed repeatedly over the last decade. First it was all about speed – but that argument collapsed with the growth of internet connectivity, facilitating work on trains.

The case then shifted to capacity – but the London to Birmingham route is already relatively well served, with trains only 43pc full on average prior to lockdown, and around 70pc at peak.  More recently, HS2 has been sold as a way of tackling the UK’s chronic North-South divide. But why build a multibillion-pound, marginally quicker service connecting London to Birmingham, and then Manchester, when these cities are already connected to the capital? 

A slew of international evidence suggests high speed links like HS2, far from spreading regional prosperity, draw more business to the capital. The UK is already the world’s most regionally lopsided developed nation – with wealth and prosperity over-concentrated in London and the South East. 

Liam – Share of households with full-fibre broadband, end 2019[2]

As such, a railway billed as the solution to “levelling up” could make regional imbalances even worse – particularly now the Birmingham to Leeds branch has been scrapped.  Already Europe’s largest infrastructure project, HS2 will be the most expensive railway ever built.

The original 2010 price tag has spiralled from around GBP30bn to over GBP100bn[3]. Countless transport experts have slammed the project as grotesquely over-priced, while offering terrible value for taxpayers’ money.  The productivity benefits of a marginally faster service between cities in the North and South are indeed vanishingly small.

The real gains are to be had by building more frequent, faster routes into and between our Northern towns and cities, linking them together into a growth centre to rival London. This can be achieved relatively quickly and cheaply, compared to the time and expense of building the HS2 white elephant.  Already under construction for over a year, work on HS2 is overwhelmingly centred on the London to Birmingham leg.

Many so-called “red wall” MPs, including many Conservatives, have understandably argued that building work should have started in the North instead. Boris Johnson’s majority is built on retaining those red wall seats won from Labour in 2019. If levelling up is seen as little more than a slogan, a series of broken promises, those seats could be lost once more[4].

Given that, the oddest part of last week’s rail announcement was that Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR), the proposed high-speed link connecting Liverpool to Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Hull and ultimately Newcastle, has also hit the buffers. Among many voters and political leaders in the North, NPR is the centrepiece of the levelling-up agenda. Yet we now know long-awaited improvements to west-east rail services across the North will consist of upgrades to existing lines, not a new high-speed service.

This despite countless independent studies showing that the productivity gains of NPR far outstrip those of HS2. Yet HS2 is being built, while Northern Powerhouse Rail isn’t.  Unveiling the Government’s plans[5], Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, said they involved GBP96bn of investment in the Midlands and the North.

Yet the bulk of this package has already been announced, including as it does the cost of the London-Birmingham link, which far from benefiting the North, does more to bring the wealthier parts of residential Birmingham into the London commuter belt. 

Liam – Annual transport spending per head, 2019[6]

Shapps told MPs the Government was spending “five times more than Crossrail” – the new train line across London – and “10 times more than was spent on the London Olympics”. He also argued that upgrading lines between the East Midlands,
Manchester and Leeds, as opposed to waiting for new high-speed links, will lead to quicker improvements in journey times. Such electoral calculus, as well as cost pressures, clearly form part of the Government’s thinking.

Yet, if ministers are keen to improve the railways in the Midlands and North ahead of the next election, there are better ways to spend money. How about finally widening the narrow, two-line Castlefield corridor in central Manchester -a pinch point that disrupts trains across the North West and beyond? Another bottleneck that needs fixing is Ledburn Junction near Milton Keynes, which slows down the whole of the West Coast Main Line. 

Consider the reality that while around 80pc of train routes in the South East are electrified (not including the Tube), that compares to just 15pc of trains across the North. Electric trains are faster, smoother, greener-and they can pull more carriages and accelerate quicker, so there can be more of them, leading to more frequency and less overcrowding.  The reality is that HS2 delivers few benefits but is happening anyway due to inertia, the lobbying power of engineering conglomerates and property developers, and broader metropolitan bias.

And now the Birmingham to Leeds line has been scrapped, the levelling-up benefits of this project, already wildly overstated, are even more diminished.  The lack of focus on NPR is leading to politically dangerous cries of “Northern betrayal” – and rightly so. If the Prime Minister wants “levelling up” to happen, he should be channelling cash into high-return rail “quick fixes”, while doing everything possible to deliver top-quality fibre-optic connectivity to every UK household.

That would be a far smarter use of public money.


  1. ^ hit the buffers (
  2. ^ Liam – Share of households with full-fibre broadband, end 2019 (
  3. ^ spiralled from around GBP30bn to over GBP100bn (
  4. ^ those seats could be lost once more (
  5. ^ Government’s plans (
  6. ^ Liam – Annual transport spending per head, 2019 (