Bradford feels isolated as UK set to scale back ambitious railway plans

In his first few days as prime minister, Boris Johnson stood in front of a 200-year old steam locomotive in Manchester and promised to revolutionise rail travel across the north of England. “It is time we got this whole thing moving,” he said. Two years later and the prime minister’s lofty ambitions are about to be dramatically scaled back to save tens of billions of pounds, dealing a major blow to cities like Bradford which had hoped to boost their economies by transforming their infrastructure. The decision has provided fuel to Johnson’s critics, who argue it will make it hard for him to fully deliver his central agenda to “level up” left-behind areas.

Most of the eastern leg of the High Speed 2 line between the midlands and Leeds is expected to be scrapped when the government’s GBP100bn integrated rail plan is published on Thursday. Ministers will also water down plans for the Northern Powerhouse Rail project, a key part of which would have linked Leeds and Manchester with a new line via Bradford. Instead, a short new section of track will be built from Manchester to a point close to Huddersfield, while the rest of the route will come from upgrades to the existing Transpennine route.

That is bad news for the passengers arriving at Bradford Interchange station on Tuesday morning, who were met with a dispiriting sight: irregular and at times delayed services connecting to local destinations.

The local council argues that Bradford, with a population of 530,000, is the worst connected city in the UK, and both the city’s stations sit literally at the end of their lines; through trains have to reverse out from the platforms to continue their journey. It is quicker to drive the eight miles to neighbouring Leeds or 40 miles to Manchester than to take the 30mph train, so the vast majority of people do. Three-quarters of journeys between Leeds and Bradford, or 44,000 daily, are made by car, the council said.

Amir Hussain, the owner of an architecture and technology company which employs 17 people in the city, said there was an “amazing level” of grassroots business activity in the city being held back by “painful” transport links. “When I am trying to attract people it puts a barrier to their recruitment,” he said.

Bradford feels isolated as UK set to scale back ambitious railway plans
Susan Hinchcliffe, Labour leader of Bradford city council: “We could do an awful lot more if we had good rail infrastructure.” (C) Lorne Campbell/Guzelian

Hussein has to take three trains to get to Leicester, 100 miles away, to meet a regular client while a site visit to Manchester is a whole day trip. Mark Goldstone, head of business representation and policy at West and North Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce, was equally disheartened. “If you are trying to sell the city as a place to come and invest and people coming on the train have had to change a few times just to get here it doesn’t send the strongest message about the place,” he said.

Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, said the government’s expected decision was “devastating” for the city. “The potential outcome for our constituents has been really, really cruelly taken away,” she said. “There is a lot of anger here.” “I don’t want charity from government, I want investment because we are worth it, and our people want to play a full part in this economy,” said Susan Hinchcliffe, the Labour leader of Bradford city council. “We could do an awful lot more if we had good rail infrastructure.” Bradford has missed out on the economic growth in other parts of the region.

The average weekly wage of GBP538 is 4 per cent lower than in Leeds, while gross domestic product per worker is 13 per cent lower, according to the Centre for Cities think-tank. “It is right on the edge of Leeds, but economically could be the other side of the world,” said Henri Murison, director at The Northern Powerhouse Partnership, a group of business and civic leaders seeking to boost the region’s economy. “If you talk about what levelling up actually means, what you need to do is to improve the levels of productivity in northern cities and towns to that of London and the South East, and Bradford is a significant untapped opportunity,” he said.

Bradford feels isolated as UK set to scale back ambitious railway plans
Amir Hussain, the owner of an architecture and technology company: “When I am trying to attract people it puts a barrier to their recruitment.” (C) Lorne Campbell/Guzelian

The frustration in Bradford is mirrored across a region which has long felt excluded from public spending on infrastructure.

The Northern Research Group of Conservative MPs representing seats in the north of England said it was “deeply concerned” about the expected “watering down of commitments on northern transport infrastructure”. Ministers will argue that rail upgrades expected to be announced this week will see shorter journey times between many northern cities, including Leeds and Manchester, and be available sooner than the original Northern Powerhouse Rail vision. However, for many in the North, the plan is a missed opportunity to bring connectivity across a swath of northern England closer to the level of service taken for granted in and around the capital.

Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, said that scrapping the new line from Manchester to Leeds “looks like the same old story”.

“No expense is spared in London and the South East into the midlands, but when it gets to our part of the world they say, you’ll have to have cuts, you’ll have to have a second class option.” he said. “We expect promises made to be delivered.”

“We haven’t got the trains we need to match a twenty first century city,” said Mandy Ridyard, the owner of an aerospace engineering company on the outskirts of Bradford. “We aren’t asking for the world, we are asking for what the south of England and the rest of Europe has,” she said.