Stations of the Cross

Date: 22/06/2022
Author: Chris Fletcher
Company: Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce

Chris Fletcher, the Chamber's Policy and Campaigns Director, reflects on the current rail strikes and future plans for the country's railways: 

Amongst the vitriol in the media this week about the rail strikes, one of the messages coming out is around the undeniably crucial part that the rail network plays in the economy.

The government has wheeled out various ministers to point at the damage the strikes are doing by preventing people from getting to work, going on holiday and the hold up to freight. Of course some of the wilder claims in certain parts of the press about this being a return to the 1970s are extremely wide of the mark as anyone that actually remembers the 70s will testify. However, a protracted series of strikes and the knock-on effects will undoubtedly have an impact on the economy that, let’s face it, isn’t in the rosiest of health even before the strikes. And it is easy to see why commuters may be feeling annoyed about the whole situation.

I do find it interesting that the government has chosen the line it has, about the vital necessity of public transport, to attack the RMT when, recently, it has itself displayed a bit of a casual attitude about its own infrastructure and transport strategy.

Earlier this week there was the second reading of the HS2 Crewe to Manchester bill that will see HS2 built north of Crewe and finally reach Manchester and link up somewhere with the existing West Coast Main Line. This all sounds promising at last. But the context behind this is a slightly different story.

Last year the Integrated Rail Plan scrapped the Eastern leg of HS2 that would have connected major eastern cities to the network and the vital link to Leeds. It also drastically cut back on previous promises about a brand new, long overdue, high-capacity line running East West across the Pennines and instead offered a bargain bin version that starts in Warrington, runs through Manchester and finishes at the glittering metropolis of Marsden just over the border in Yorkshire. No offence to Marsden it’s a glorious part of the country but as a major rail hub…….? It’s almost like the people making these decisions have never been there.

Recently, another part of the new network was lopped off when a vital link between HS2 and the West Coast Main Line was scrapped which would have brought a huge increase in capacity for stations from Wigan northwards. Instead, a review will be held to look at alternatives that will offer the same level of service. Now, I’m no expert but I’ve been around long enough to be concerned that this is a prelude to this never being built as costs and complexities of the alternative will inevitably rise.

Don’t get me wrong, HS2 will be built, there will be some form of better trans-Pennine service but probably not until the late 2030s which, I guess, is better than nothing.

So, here’s a thing: if, according to the government, the current rail strike is having such a profound impact and transport is so vital to the economy, it should stop the dithering and cutting future investment in major transport projects. Come out of your Westminster bubble and see what the reality is for the vast majority of people that face a massive challenge everyday to get to work even when there’s a ‘full’ service on the rail network. For a government that talks big on devolution and levelling up, it has a great capacity to ignore local evidence and needs and impose its own ideas from Whitehall.

All this coming so soon after the fanfare about the opening of the brand new and stunning Elizabeth Line (Crossrail) makes it feel like we are still getting a very poor deal. ‘Where’s our Crossrail for the north?’ people may well ask. Well, if the last 12 months are anything to go by, I think we may just end up with the cross bit – cross about more delays, cross about a lack of serious intention and cross about being let down yet again.