THE transport secretary will today use a visit to the North-East to declare 2020 as a “year of action on the railways with the North sitting at the heart of the improvements”.

Grant Shapps’ visit comes just days after he revealed that troubled rail operator Northern is to be stripped of its franchise following “unacceptable’ performance since 2016.

He will view progress on the new £10.5m Horden Peterlee Station and visit Blyth to see the potential for restoring passenger services along the Ashington to Blyth line,

Mr Shapps will say: “2020 will be a year of action on the railways with the North sitting at the heart of the improvements.

“Investing in new stations like Horden Peterlee will deliver more modern, reliable services for passengers. We are also ambitious to restore connections to communities who have lost out, and the Northumberland line has huge potential to deliver that.

“Our focus is levelling up infrastructure across the country, ensuring passengers see the benefit of new trains, new stations and fairer fares.”

The Government has confirmed it will establish a £500m fund to explore reopening former routes.

Today’s visit comes amid renewed focus on the cost of HS2, as the deputy chairman of its review panel said those in charge of the project have been “fiddling the figures”. Former Labour transport spokesman Lord Berkeley claimed Parliament was “seriously misled” over the costs of HS2, which would be poor value for money and bad for the environment.

The Northern Echo:

He also accused the project of being “completely out of control financially”.

But a HS2 Ltd spokesperson said there have been many individual views expressed about the HS2 project, of which Lord Berkeley’s is just one.

Lord Berkeley’s comments come after his hard-hitting 70-page dissenting report into the high speed rail proposal was published, listing several grave concerns. Chief among them is the blow-out of estimated costs.

The network was initially expected to cost £50.1bn. Latest estimates by HS2 Ltd – the private company in charge of the project – put the price at £88bn. But Lord Berkeley says independent analysis arrives at a figure of at least £107.92bn.

The Northern Echo:

Lord Berkeley told Sky’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday: “For me, HS2, if it were almost cancelled except for the bit in the Northern Powerhouse area and replaced by about half the investment on local services, local rail network in the north and the Midlands, it would be much better for everybody who lives up there. Saving 50 billion at this stage, I think, is quite something that we’ll want to look at.”

In response, director of the Northern Powerhouse project Henri Murison said his comments “sound like the views of someone who has always been a sceptic of HS2 simply making the points they’ve made before”.

An HS2 Ltd spokesman said: “There have been many individual views expressed about the HS2 project, however we await the publication of the Government’s official review.

“HS2 Ltd has provided full cooperation to Mr Oakervee and his review team, and if the Government decides to proceed we have a highly skilled team in place ready to build Britain’s new railway.

“Investment in a state-of-the-art high speed line is critical for the UK’s low-carbon transport future, will provide much needed rail capacity up and down the country, and is integral to rail projects in the North and Midlands which will help rebalance the UK economy.”

Tim Wood, Northern Powerhouse rail director at Transport for the North, said: “Whilst we appreciate Lord Berkeley’s strong support for investment in northern infrastructure, we’re concerned about the view that the North doesn’t need HS2. More rail capacity and better connectivity will be vital if we’re going to get people out of their cars and encourage more sustainable travel.”