Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham has said that the “classic system” of rail in the UK is in a “managed decline” amid rumours about the cancellation of the Birmingham to Manchester leg of HS2 and delays in the UK Government’s move to grant powers to Great British Railways. 

Speaking at the Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s (GMCA) sixth annual Green Summit, Burnham told Railway Technology that he feels things are moving backwards and called on the rail industry to ensure it doesn’t get left behind as his region continues its revitalisation of public transport. 

Burnham said: “We’ve got a modern public transport system here; our tram stops are built to really high standards of disability access. Then you look at our train stations and they’re almost like outliers in the city now: they’re crumbling, they’re inaccessible, they’re dark. 

It just feels all wrong to me

Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester

“So the rail industry needs to look at itself a bit more in the mirror and realise that it’s in danger of being left behind and it needs to get with us on the same journey more quickly.” 

However, Burnham was keen to emphasise that there were signs of positivity in the sector, including the GMCA’s work to integrate local rail networks into its Transport for London-style Bee Network by 2030 and praised Rail Minister Huw Merriman for his engagement with the project. 

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Despite this, the Labour mayor voiced his concerns over the “managed decline” of the UK’s classic rail system, highlighting the “whittling back” of timetables by rail operators, the closure of almost every ticket office in the North of England and the government’s focus on its Plan for Drivers

Noting the plans, he said: “How’s that going to encourage more people to use the railways? We should be having a vision for expanding the railways, a pro-public transport vision for the country. Instead, we get a plan for drivers. It just feels all wrong to me.” 

In addition to addressing wider concerns about the UK’s rail network, Burnham responded to the possible cancellation of the high-speed rail line (HS2) between Birmingham and Manchester, which he said was indivisible from the Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) plans. 

While acknowledging that most people in Greater Manchester, including himself, would say that east-to-west rail connections were the biggest priority for rail investment, Burnham added that he didn’t see why people in the north should have to choose between better connections in the region and better connections to the south. 

Burnham said: “London wasn’t forced to choose between the Elizabeth Line or HS2 so why should we?

“The thing that’s coming through this debate is a clear sense that the powers that be and particularly Whitehall, feel they can treat people here as second-class citizens when it comes to transport. 

“They spent absolutely millions, tens of millions of pounds, tunnelling HS2 under the Chilterns for zero economic benefit because of a highly vocal local campaign and yet, they won’t spend [it] here to create jobs, growth – it’s just their priorities are all wrong.”

Burnham’s comments came only shortly after a group of Northern England’s mayors and the Transport for the North organisation called on the government to remain committed to HS2 and NPR.

The ruling Conservative Party is in Manchester from Sunday 1 October until Wednesday 4 October to debate and decide its policy platforms for the next 12 months.

It has been widely rumoured that Prime Minister Sunak will cancel the northern ‘leg’ of HS2, connecting Manchester and Birmingham, during his keynote speech on Wednesday. 10 Downing St, the PM’s office, said that reporting was “incorrect” but did not answer further questions on the project.