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29.06.18

MPs: Efforts to rebalance rail investment must be mandatory, not an afterthought

The Northern Powerhouse and the Midlands Engine will “struggle to live up to their names” if the government continues to prioritise rail investment in London despite decades of underinvestment elsewhere, MPs have said in a new report.

While members of the Transport Select Committee did accept that annual snapshots of comparative regional investment can be problematic, and that funding one area can lead to benefits in another, they argued that the current disparities are much too wide and will worsen further if not addressed in direct and tangible ways.

The Treasury’s own data shows that spending per head in London in 2016-17 was more than 10 times that of the East Midlands, for example.

Whilst the debate around the north/south divide is nothing new, it was once again brought to the limelight after transport secretary Chris Grayling announced funding in principle for Crossrail 2— just four days after cancelling three electrification schemes in the Midlands, South Wales and the Lake District.

To mitigate this, the government published a Rebalancing Toolkit in December last year that acknowledged that need for change. But MPs in the committee said this was only “supplementary guidance” and are not convinced that it will “make a material difference unless made mandatory, kept under regular review and put at the heart of the DfT’s investment decisions, rather than an afterthought.”

Committee chair Lilian Greenwood MP, who wrote for the latest issue of RTM, said that some regions in the country have “faced decades of underinvestment in their parts of the rail network.”

“They deserve to have a clear sense of what the government is doing to help them attract transport investment and grow economically,” she added. “The Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine will struggle to live up to their names without tangible change.”

Responding to these claims, a DfT spokesperson assured that the government is “reversing years of underinvestment” by funnelling “significant extra resources” into the network.

“The next few years will actually see higher government spending in the north, compared to the south, and by 2020 all Northern and TransPennine trains will be new or refurbished, with an extra 500 carriages providing space for 280,000 extra passengers and 2,000 extra services each week,” they added.

“A third of all enhancement spending over the next five-year investment period – £3bn – will be used to upgrading the route between Leeds, Manchester and York, as we also see the roll-out of the new intercity express trains serving the east, north east and south west.”

Elsewhere in its report, the committee blasted Grayling’s decision to focus entirely on the passenger benefits of investing in bi-modes when he chose to scrap electrification schemes, which “seemed to ignore the environmental costs.” And while the decision was motivated by a lack of cash in CP5, the ultimate benefits of the bi-mode approach itself were also uncertain.

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