The Mancunion

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Thomas the Tank Engine helps campaigners unite against transport cuts

Friends of the Earth Manchester take to controversial methods to battle inequitable funding between the North and the nation’s capital

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On the morning of Monday the 2nd October, Manchester Friends of the Earth gathered supporters at the Central Library to urge politicians to contribute money towards the rail electrification project that Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has threatened could be put to the axe.

With the help of ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ and a pre-pay meter sandwich board, Friends of the Earth supporters staged the stunt to raise awareness of the possible cuts as Conservative politicians gathered for the annual Tory Party Conference in Central Manchester.

The campaigners pressed Conservative MPs and conference delegates to push back against inequitable funding for the North and towards much-needed improvements. The planned changes had until recently included the electrification of several Northern train routes as well as the widening and addition of platforms at Manchester Piccadilly.

Friends of the Earth see these improvements as critical to combatting issues of air pollution, climate change, and overcrowding.

“We wanted to use humour to engage delegates to the Conservative Party conference and encourage them to tell government ministers they need to honour their pledges and rail commitments,” said Pete Abel, a volunteer with the Manchester Friends of the Earth sustainable transport campaign, who was present at the demonstration.

“Our stunt was only a small part of an on-going campaign by transport campaigners, local authorities, political, and business leaders across the North to get proper investment in Cross Rail for the North and rail electrification to deliver faster and better train services, improve air quality and reduce climate emissions from transport.”

Transport is a key area for climate concern in Britain and the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions. Road transport alone is responsible for around 25 percent of total UK emissions. However, the government is increasingly falling behind on its targets.

18 months ago, Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom pledged a 100 percent reduction in emissions by 2050, but that figure has since been reduced to 80 percent, leading some to accuse the government of doing too little to combat climate change.

Perhaps most importantly, the campaign speaks to the larger problem of disproportionate government investment in London compared with the North of England. Statistics show that some parts of the North receive less than a tenth of the investment per person that Londoners do on transport.

Supporters were outraged when Chris Grayling expressed support for a ‘Cross Rail 2’ project in London at the cost of at least £31 billion, shortly after plans for its Northern equivalent were thrown into doubt.

With the help of Manchester Friends of the Earth, over 87,000 people have now signed a petition calling for Mr Grayling to pledge his backing for a Northern Powerhouse Rail Programme as well as at least £59 billion ‘catch-up cash’ over the coming decade to support transport initiatives in the North. The petition also calls for Transport for the North to be empowered to the same level of autonomy enjoyed by Transport for London.

Some measure of success was achieved today as Chancellor Philip Hammond announced £300 million of funding is to be made available towards the Northern rail investment project.

“The Thomas the Tank Engine event received a lot of interest and publicity on social media but true success will be measured when Ministers’ actions match their warm words,” added Mr Abel. “The announcement of £300 million for rail investment is to be welcomed but is a drop in the ocean of the funding required to rebalance transport investment.”

It seems that for Manchester Friends of the Earth, and for the future of Northern rail travel, the battle is far from over.