An extra £1.5bn will be spent on train and tram upgrades in England’s cities, as Rishi Sunak seeks to ward off protests that transport pledges to the North and Midlands are being broken.
Next week’s Budget will see the extra cash pumped into local funding pots and confirm that a further £1.2bn will be made available to improve much-criticised bus services.
But the move is unlikely to dilute criticism that a long-promised “levelling up” plan – to end very slow journey times between big cities outside London – has effectively been scrapped.
The Independent revealed that local leaders are set to be offered only a cut-price “bare minimum” of improvements and not the £39bn Northern Powerhouse Rail scheme backed by Boris Johnson.
Demands for an ambitious underground through station in Manchester are also believed to have been blocked – forcing trains to reverse, creating a bottleneck and adding to journey times.
The Northern Powerhouse Rail blueprint is now believed to have been delayed, after the prime minister demanded more ambition from the Treasury, which is desperate to cut costs.
The i newspaper reported that an overall Integrated Rail Plan has been pushed back until November – when it was due before next Wednesday’s three-year spending review – to allow No 10 and No 11 to agree on a rewrite.
Mr Johnson backed a new line between Leeds and Manchester in July 2019, but the project is now set to be downgraded and involve mainly upgrades to existing Transpennine lines.
Next Wednesday, in his Budget, Mr Sunak will announce that five-year City Region Sustainable Transport Settlements will be boosted from £4.2bn to £5.7bn.
It will fund new carriages for Greater Manchester’s Metrolink, an expansion of tram networks in South Yorkshire and the West Midlands, and battery packs for Merseyrail trains to extend its network.
The £1.2bn to improve bus services is part of a £3bn pot already unveiled by Mr Johnson.
The Chancellor said: “Great cities need great transport and that is why we’re investing billions to improve connections in our city regions as we level up opportunities across the country.
“There is no reason why somebody working in the North and Midlands should have to wait several times longer for their bus or train to arrive in the morning compared to a commuter in the capital.”
The prime minister was widely expected to unveil details of the Northern Powerhouse Rail scheme in his speech to Tory conference, but raised eyebrows when he gave it only a passing mention.
The project was first announced when George Osborne was chancellor but – nearly half a decade later – no concrete plans have been published, despite better transport being seen as key to “levelling up” hopes.