FORMER Chancellor George Osborne has triggered a new controversy by urging the government to build a high speed line across the Pennines between Manchester and Leeds, which has often been dubbed ‘HS3’.
Writing in the Financial Times today, the ex-Chancellor, who now edits the London Evening Standard, agreed that such a line would ‘not be cheap’, but said it would “bring seven million extra people – and three times the number of businesses – within a 90-minute journey time of one of the northern cities”.
He added: “There is no geographical reason why this cannot happen.” The cost could be £7 billion, according to some estimates, but he pointed out that the expenditure would be spread over many years.
The government has recently shelved plans to electrify the Great Western line between Cardiff Central and Swansea, and also abandoned plans to wire up any more of the Midland Main Line, except for a relatively short stretch between Bedford, Kettering and Corby as an extension of the existing 80km between London and Bedford which dates back to 1982.
The fate of Transpennine electrification is less clear, because the existing railway was not mentioned in a formal statement about electrification issued just before Parliament rose for its summer recess on 20 July.
However, on the folloiwing day transport secretary Chris Grayling hinted that discontinuous electrification might be the way forward between Manchester and Leeds, using bi-mode trains to bridge non-electrified sections.
The other possibility is that the existing route could be retained in part but reinforced by new high speed links, although Mr Osborne appears to want a completely new line.
The government said it was already investing ‘billions of pounds’ in the region to help create a Northern Powerhouse, while Rail Delivery Group chief executive Paul Plummer said: “Of course, rail companies support growing the railway to improve connections for communities, passengers and businesses as it helps boost economic growth and makes journeys better. That's why the rail industry is working together on new ways of developing, financing and delivering projects in partnership so they achieve the best value for customers and taxpayers.”
The RMT union was less welcoming. General secretary Mick Cash said: “The hypocrisy of former Tory Chancellor George Osborne as he tours the newsrooms fuelling the civil war inside the Tory Party is extraordinary.
“This is a man who was the key player in Governments which presided over fragmented, cash-starved and privatised rail across the North and which put profiteering first while passengers were left rammed into clapped-out, lashed-up Pacer trains.
“The real legacy of George Osborne's period in Government is axed electrification, modernisation and renewal programmes.”