Traffic-Clogged North England Bitter Over Stalled Rail Plan

Source: : 2022-06-12 01:51:36 : Aina J. Khan

BRADFORD, England — As Haniyya Ejaz boards her crowded morning train in the northern city of Bradford, an automated announcement tinged with a cheery Yorkshire accent chimes, “Welcome aboard this northern service to Leeds.”

But the 10-mile commute between the two cities is far from a welcome one for Ms. Ejaz, whose daily train journeys to her classes at a college in Leeds are usually plagued with delays, understaffing, overcrowding and cancellations. Her home, Bradford, was bestowed the dubious honor of being the worst-connected city in Britain in one study, reflecting a common problem across northern England.

“Usually, my train is either late, or, it has arrived on time, but I’ll find out it has no driver,” said Ms. Ejaz, a 19-year-old student at the University of Leeds. “I thought trains would be a lot more dependable, since you don’t have traffic. But it’s been just as bad as buses, if not worse.”

The transport problems besetting Bradford are just one symptom of the economic neglect that has long hobbled the north of England, where growth, employment and health care mostly lag far behind the south. Successive governments have pledged to tackle the problem, including most recently, the administration of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has pledged to “level up” the north and bring to it the prosperity of the south.

One initiative — a 96 billion pound (about $120 billion) Integrated Rail Plan that includes a high-speed rail project, HS2 — has been promoted by the government in recent years as a key effort to alleviate the north’s transportation woes.

But in November, Britain’s transportation secretary, Grant Shapps, suggested that a plan for an eastern leg of the line — the branch toward Leeds — had been indefinitely dropped.

Adding salt to the wounds of people in the area, a request by the Bradford Council and several supporters for an east-to-west track connecting major northern cities like Manchester, Leeds and Bradford to be included in another line, Northern Powerhouse Rail, and a new upgraded station in Bradford were ignored.

“A new line from Manchester to Leeds via a new station in Bradford would cost an additional 10 billion pounds alone,” a Department for Transport spokesman said in a statement.

The evaporating dreams of better railways have angered many people in the affected areas and prompted feelings of betrayal by the government in London, which enjoys the best connections in Britain.

“A lot of things in the north get neglected,” Ms. Ejaz said. “People have just accepted that this is the standard of train services that they have.”

Mandy Ridyard, a director at Produmax, an aerospace factory in Bradford that makes parts for companies including Boeing, said one of her employees resigned last year because of the terrible traffic on the road from his home in Manchester, around 30 miles away. That road, the M62, is a stretch of highway that includes some of the most congested areas in Britain.

“After three or four years of not getting home in time to see his kids to bed, he just gave up because the traffic was just getting worse and worse,” Ms. Ridyard said. “We’re only asking for what other parts of the country have had forever.”

Bradford, a city of over a half-million people, is Britain’s youngest city. More than a quarter of its population is under 18, but almost 10 percent of its 18- to 24-year-olds receive unemployment-related benefits, a number around double the national average for that age group, according to figures shared with The New York Times by Bradford Council.

At the factory, where a poster of a caped superhero hangs in the warehouse declaring, “Engineering superheroes this way,” about 20 percent of employees are teenagers completing an apprenticeship program, according to the company.

Ms. Ridyard said she worried that a failure to improve rail links could hurt social mobility in inner-city areas of Bradford, as well as in surrounding commuter towns and cities, and badly affect young people.

“If you have to have a car to get somewhere because the train connections don’t work,” she said, “we’re not talking about a level playing field.”

To make up for dropping the high-speed rail, the government has offered some concessionary upgrades on existing lines. Archaic Victorian-era rail tracks would be electrified, cutting journey times for a handful of existing routes (a journey to Bradford from Leeds would be cut by almost half under the new plans). And capacity on northern train services would be increased. But there are no firm dates on when all this will be completed.

Years of travel chaos on the Northern railway, with its aging fleet of trains and staffing shortages, saw the franchise, which was run by Arriva Rail North and owned by Deutsche Bahn in Germany, taken over by the government in March 2020. “Passengers have lost trust in the north’s rail network,” Mr. Shapps declared.

Months before the 2019 general election that saw a landslide victory for the Conservative Party, which succeeded in winning over traditional Labour voters in the north, Mr. Johnson pledged to fund the Northern Powerhouse Rail route between Manchester and Leeds to “turbocharge regional growth and prosperity” in the region.

Bradford Council said the Northern Powerhouse Rail proposals would have bolstered Bradford’s economy by about 30 billion pounds, creating 27,000 new jobs by 2060.

Now the recent U-turn has left a bitter taste for many.

“They suffer from the classic problem of over promising and under delivering, which is a reoccurring fatal mistake of many governments but seems to be endemic to this one,” said Jim O’Neill, a key architect of the Northern Powerhouse strategy, and a former adviser in the government of Prime Minister Theresa May, who preceded Mr. Johnson.

“It was pretty clear at least two years before that Bradford wasn’t going to happen,” said Mr. O’Neill who was working within government at the time, and who said the plan to build the new station in Bradford had been deemed too expensive.

A Department for Transport spokesman did not address the claims of Mr. O’Neill, who is currently vice chair of Northern Powerhouse Partnership, a lobbying group, but told The Times that the government had not canceled the eastern leg of HS2. “The Integrated Rail Plan set aside 100 million pounds to look at the most effective ways to take HS2 trains to Leeds, and further work will be carried out to assess the best options,” he said.

Not everyone was in support of the high-speed rail line in the north.

Edna Small, 77, a retired teacher, moved to Church Fenton, a village in North Yorkshire enveloped by lush countryside, in 2007. Under proposed plans for HS2 released a few years later, Church Fenton, with an estimated population of about 1,500, would have been one of the last stops on its eastern leg.

After news emerged that a 50-foot viaduct would have thundered through the quiet outskirts of the village, and that her home would be pincered by the viaduct and the local train station on either side, Ms. Small joined a group of anti-HS2 campaigners.

The halting of the eastern branch of HS2 brought a sense of relief, even if by then, Ms. Small, 77, had already sold her home, whose market value, she said, had been diminished by the railway plans.

“It was going to destroy the whole area,” she said. “It was a vanity project,” she said.

“But Bradford has been left in the lurch,” Ms. Small conceded. “The government make promises they never keep.”

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