“I want to be the prime minister who does with Northern Powerhouse Rail what we did for Crossrail in London.”
Those were the words of Boris Johnson days after he entered Downing Street in 2019.
As people digest the contents of his government’s Integrated Rail Plan, there will be many people who will feel the prime minister has gone back on his word.
The proposed eastern leg of HS2, between Birmingham and Leeds, has been cut back.
High-speed services will run from Birmingham to East Midlands Parkway, around six miles south-east of Nottingham.
Trains will then continue to Nottingham, Derby, Chesterfield and Sheffield on the existing mainline, which will be upgraded.
Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) has also been downgraded, with the plans delivered through a combination of new track and upgrades to existing infrastructure, rather than an entirely new line between Manchester and Leeds.
A key focus of the PM’s policy agenda is the idea of “levelling up”, a broad concept that basically means investing in areas and improving infrastructure.
The justification from the government for these revised plans is that they will still cut journey times, but can be delivered much quicker than sticking to previous commitments to construct vast new infrastructure which won’t be finished for a decade or more.
But opposition politicians will claim the plans call into question the whole idea of “levelling up”.
They will argue that the focus on journey times does not tell the whole story and that the extra capacity the eastern leg of HS2 and the original NPR would have provided would have been just as transformative.
You can guarantee that the PM’s past comments on HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail will be raked over, providing fuel for election leaflets, campaign ads, media interviews and parliamentary exchanges.
This is a selection of Mr Johnson’s remarks on HS2 and NPR since he came into Number 10.
25 July 2019
Asked if he will “commit quickly” to NPR, the PM tells the Commons he is a “huge fan” of the idea.
“I went up to Manchester airport and saw the plan. It is a truly visionary and exciting plan, and I think we should definitely be doing it,” Mr Johnson said.
2019 Conservative Party manifesto
The Tories’ blueprint for government, published ahead of the December 2019 general election, stated: “We will build Northern Powerhouse Rail between Leeds and Manchester and then focus on Liverpool, Tees Valley, Hull, Sheffield and Newcastle.”
The document was less definitive about the future of HS2, stating: “HS2 is a great ambition, but will now cost at least £81bn and will not reach Leeds or Manchester until as late as 2040.
“We will consider the findings of the Oakervee review into costs and timings and work with leaders of the Midlands and the North to decide the optimal outcome.”
29 January 2020
Asked about the need to increase capacity in the region by Tory MP Kevin Hollinrake, Mr Johnson says “we are not only building Northern Powerhouse Rail and investing in the Midlands rail hub but, as he knows, we are looking into whether and how to proceed with HS2, and the House can expect an announcement very shortly”.
11 February 2020
The PM announces that HS2 will be going ahead in full, including the eastern leg from Leeds to Birmingham, following a review into the scheme amid worries about spiralling costs.
Appearing in the Commons to announce the findings of the review, he says: “This is about finally making a rapid connection from the West Midlands to the Northern Powerhouse – to Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds – and simultaneously permitting us to go forward with Northern Powerhouse Rail across the Pennines, finally giving the home of the railways the fast connections they need.”
In comments that, upon reading back, appear to be laying the track for the IRP (Integrated Rail Plan) announcements, the PM says he wants to “look at how we can best design and integrate rail investments throughout the North, including Northern Powerhouse Rail between Leeds and Manchester”.
“I want the plan to identify the most effective design and sequencing of all relevant investments in the North,” Mr Johnson tells MPs.
He adds that HS2 and NPR will be “built as quickly and as cost-effectively as possible”.
But the PM continues: “Something has to change. Those who deny that – those who say that we should simply build phase 2b and Northern Powerhouse Rail according to the plans currently on the table – are effectively condemning the North to get nothing for 20 years.
“That would be intolerable, so as we draw up this plan, we are not asking whether it is phase 2b or not 2b.
“That is not the question; the question is how we can bring a transport revolution to the North sooner.”
Asked by Labour MP Lilian Greenwood for assurances that phase 2b (the eastern leg from Birmingham to Leeds) will not be “delayed further or downgraded to cut costs”, Mr Johnson replies: “Of course we are committed to phase 2b, but I think the honourable member will appreciate – given what has happened in the past 10 years with phase 1 – that it is vital that we use this inflection point to ensure that the taxpayer gets maximum value as we proceed.”
Asked by Leeds Central Labour MP Hilary Benn when the new HS2 station will open in the city, the PM tells him “we will get it going as soon as possible”.
4 November 2020
“I can certainly confirm that we are going ahead with Northern Powerhouse Rail.”
9 December 2020
“We are getting on with both the eastern leg of HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail.
“What I have asked the National Infrastructure Commission and Network Rail to look at is how those two projects can best be integrated to boost the economy of the whole of the north of the country.”
10 February 2021
“I can certainly confirm that we are going to develop the eastern leg as well as the whole of HS2.”
6 October 2021
“We will do Northern Powerhouse Rail, we will link up the cities of the Midlands and the North.”
3 November 2021
“The north-east will be the beneficiary of the biggest investment in our rail infrastructure beyond HS2 that we have seen for a century.
“We will be putting in about £96bn more, and we want the local and regional authorities to work with us to ensure that we promote the projects that the people really want.”