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Vital East Coast Main Line improvements could still be years away despite PM’s £780m upgrade pledge

The Government has announced investment of �780m in infrastructure for East Coast Main Line services, which are now run by publicly-owned LNER. Stock pic.
The Government has announced investment of �780m in infrastructure for East Coast Main Line services, which are now run by publicly-owned LNER. Stock pic.
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VITAL improvements to rail services in Yorkshire on Britain’s flagship East Coast Main Line service may still be years away despite the Government pledging to carry out £780m of infrastructure work on the route.

The confirmation of the funding for Network Rail to carry out upgrades on the line between London and Edinburgh, stopping at several Yorkshire towns and cities, was made by Prime Minister Theresa May as she took her Cabinet to the North East yesterday.

But the announcement, which includes no new money from central Government beyond what has already been earmarked, was criticised by Labour as a “re-packaging of old announcements” which “won’t address the North-South spending gap”.

A senior Yorkshire councillor said it was “disappointing” that capacity upgrades promised between York and Newcastle which are vital for realising the potential for high speed rail in the region were not included in the plans.

And questions remained tonight over when the improvements to services promised when Virgin Trains East Coast took over the route in 2015, such as improved journey times and an increase in the number of trains, will be delivered.

Theresa May insists she is committed to the Northern Powerhouse as she takes her Cabinet to Gateshead

VTEC, which earlier this year was forced to relinquish the franchise, promised regular journey times of two hours between Leeds and London by May 2020 as well as new services to Huddersfield and Middlesbrough and extra services to Sunderland, Leeds and York.

A government briefing document seen by The Yorkshire Post said only that “it remains our intention to deliver further service enhancements and journey time reductions when it is possible to do so”, and that extra services will be delivered later than originally planned.

When asked about the promised improvements, a Department for Transport spokesman said only that the work would be done by the “early 2020s”.

The infrastructure upgrades include improvements to the power supply, as well as changes to platforms, tracks, signals and junctions across the route, but according to the briefing document a number of delivery plans are yet to be finalised.

The plans include upgrading overhead cables north of Doncaster to allow the next generation Azuma Class 800 trains to run at full speed while still increasing capacity by a quarter on the route.

The power supply was upgraded between London and South Yorkshire last year, but improvements further north were not included in Network Rail’s five-year spending plans so will not now be done until 2021.

Eric Firth, Deputy Chair of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority Transport Committee, said: “While investment in our transport infrastructure is welcome, these upgrades have been promised before so it is critically important that Network Rail sets out realistic timetables for when these projects will be completed and is transparent in their delivery.

“However it is disappointing this annoucement does not appear to include capacity upgrades previously promised between York and Newcastle.

“This section will be vital to realising the full potential of HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail, and we already know the line cannot accommodate additional planned trains alongside existing services.

“A reliable, resilient East Coast Main Line is vital to this region’s future. Network Rail has identified a need for major investment in the next five years to renew much of the equipment on this line to sustain and improve reliability.

“We will be pushing Network Rail and the Regulator hard to make sure these projects are prioritised.”

A spokesman for Network Rail said: “Network Rail welcomes today’s announcement of further investment on the East Coast Mainline. We have been working with industry partners developing a suite of projects that will deliver improved services for the economies and communities that the East Coast Mainline serves.”

Shadow Transport Secretary Andy McDonald said: “Under the Tories transport spending per head in the North is under half that of London and re-packaging old announcements won’t address the North-South spending gap.

“If the Government is serious about closing the North-South divide, they would match Labour’s commitment to reinstate cancelled rail electrification and build a Crossrail for the North to help transform the economies of the North of England.”