Are we there yet?

October 15, 2023

“Are we there yet?” If you’ve ever taken kids on a journey it’s a racing certainty that question has been asked.

But does the cancellation of the second leg of HS2 mean we’re closer to having the transport system the North East needs?

I wanted HS2 fully delivered, on time, on budget, starting in Edinburgh and working south through Newcastle, to Leeds and beyond.

We were promised sleek, modern, aerodynamic trains swooshing up and down the line. Birds and wildlife looking on in amazement and admiration as the 3.30pm to Leeds whizzed past. Cutesy woodland animals from Bambi on a nearby embankment.

Instead, HS2 started in London. Decades later, it was going to reach York. Then the trains would chug on up to Newcastle at normal speed. But without new lines, existing services would be withdrawn.

The eastern leg was cancelled two years ago. That left London to Birmingham to Manchester. In July this year the Infrastructure and Projects Authority rated even that as ‘red’ – undeliverable.

We may never know how much HS2 would have cost. Clearly far more than the original £37.5 billion price tag. The leaked 2020 Oakervee Review quoted £106.6 billion.

Overspend is not inevitable. In the North East, Nexus delivered the Metro Flow project to South Shields £5 million under budget and only 1 week late, despite Covid.

At my Mayor’s Question Times, members of the public have said HS2 would not benefit the North East, instead sucking up all the investment into the south and Midlands.

If you asked the people of Newcastle or Sunderland, “Would you rather have more Metro lines and a better North East bus service, or travel 140 miles to Manchester to get on a high-speed train to London?” I think it’s pretty obvious which they’d choose.

Many cabinet ministers wanted the money returned to Treasury. I contacted the Transport Secretary Mark Harper and said since you are obviously going to cancel it, can you spend the money on other Northern transport projects instead?

In the end we saw a back-of-an-envelope plan published at Conservative conference. It clarified little. It’s called Network North, despite including Plymouth and Bristol. I remember when the Conservatives were good at slick presentation.

The official command paper was more useful. It confirmed the Blyth Relief Road, Sunderland dual carriageway into the city centre, and the Tyne Bridge refurbishment. We were already getting them 85% funded. Now it’s 100% funded, saving council tax payers the balance. Hardly HS2, mind.

I’m still chasing up A1 dualling. Some of those junctions are lethal, and upgrades should allow for a better rural bus service. There is at least a budget line now. I’ll be closely reading the Autumn Statement and Treasury documents.

What is certain is we’re getting extra devolved transport money. £1.8 billion over five years from 2027. We can use that for projects and programmes that directly benefit the North East.

I want to build a Total Transport Network, connecting every town and village with buses, fully integrated into the Metro and rail system, including the new Northumberland Line that opens next year.

A single ticket that gets you where you want to go. Reliably, cheaply and comfortably. With free travel for under-18s.

Projects like re-opening the Leamside Line. A 21-mile stretch of track from Ferryhill through Washington and onto Gateshead and Newcastle. Bringing it back into use would allow us to both expand the Metro and increase the number of services on the national rail network.

Locally the Leamside Line has been on a cross-party wish list for years. I’ve spoken to the Transport Secretary about getting Government to part fund it. The priority now is getting the engineers’ reports completed to establish the actual costs.

It should be a cross-party national priority too. I spoke to Shadow Transport Secretary Lou Haigh in person, in London, in February. She confirmed Labour would fully fund the Leamside Line. She repeated that promise on stage with me in March, in Newcastle, at the Transport for the North Conference. I’ve written to her for confirmation that Labour will honour that promise.

I’ll let you know if I get a reply. But at the moment, no, we’re not there yet.