There has been a lot of comment in the press over recent announcements from the Department of Transport. Firstly, and positively, the Transport Secretary Chris Grayling confirmed the HS2 Phase 2b routes from Crewe to Manchester, and from the West Midlands to Leeds.
Three days later, announcements in relation to the imminent introduction of new bi-mode trains in Wales and the Midlands in place of proposed full electrification of the routes, caused concern about the Government's commitment to the rail electrification programme generally and in particular the much needed Transpennine electrification programme, a key plank of the Northern Powerhouse.
Then just four days later came the joint statement between Chris Grayling and the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, supporting Crossrail 2, the new rail route connecting North and South London – an investment of approximately £30bm with the £18bn Crossrail 1 programme still under construction.
So in the space of a week we have announcements that London will be better connected with the North; North and South London will be better connected; but concern that local routes outside London will no longer be electrified. No surprise that this prompted Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, and others to complain that London was getting investment at the North's expense.
The problem is that the North's cities and towns are poorly connected which means that, relatively speaking, the North's growth is being stunted and it is not making the contribution that its assets and population would if the right investment in transport infrastructure were made. Without this investment the North/South divide will simply continue to grow which is not just bad for the North, it is bad for the UK economy.
Transport for the North have been looking at this for a while now and are pushing for what is often referred to as HS3 but is more properly known as Northern Powerhouse Rail (or Crossrail for the North), a fast rail network linking key cities including Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Hull and Newcastle. This would enable more than 40% of business that make a key contribution to the North's economy to be within 90 minutes' rail travel of four or more of the North's largest economic centres – as opposed to only 12% today. It would also mean 1.3 million people (as opposed to less than 10,000 currently) being able to access four or more of the North's key economic centres within an hour, transforming the job market.
Chris Grayling has said this week that the Government will provide funding and a delivery structure for Northern transport links, but the North needs to take control of their design and management. He stressed "we are fully committed to our Northern transport programme, including Northern Powerhouse Rail". Great news, as there were some doubts as to whether TfN's work would actually lead to anything.
But what the North's leaders need to see is commitment from the Government to provide the funding and support to deliver those schemes once fully developed and to confirm Transport for the North's status as the first Sub-National Transport Body. The Autumn Statement is the perfect opportunity to do so.