Published: 24th June 2014
George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer has made a speech at The Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester about his vision of turning England’s great northern cities into northern "powerhouse" to benefit the British economy. This is predicated on creating better transport links between these cities, the lack of which he thought was holding back the economy in the north of England.
Somewhat ironically, he delivered his speech in the Power Hall of Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry which is about to lose its national network rail connection due to the Northern Hub’ project. The Chancellor said that “while the cities of the North are individually strong, they are not collectively strong enough and that we need a Northern Powerhouse made up of a collection of cities sufficiently close to each other that combined they can take on the world.”
The Chancellor asked that this proposal should feed in to David Higgins’ review of the second phase of HS2. But is this a good idea or simply electioneering? Its obviously a great idea given the explosion in travel between Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, York, Newcastle and Humberside but has the idea come too late to be included in the HS2 review? The greatest risk to delivering a major project is when the scope is changed and this latest proposal could do just that.
The Chancellor said that “Today I want us to start thinking about whether to build a new high speed rail connection east-west from Manchester to Leeds. Based on the existing rail route, but speeded up with new tunnels and infrastructure. A third high speed railway for Britain.”
Sir David Higgins who is in charge of HS2 said: HS2 will be a strategic intervention in the life of country, helping to re-balance our economy by relieving pressure in the South and better connecting the North, so it is much more than just a railway project. I am heartened by the energy and commitment with which Parliament on all sides, the Government and local authorities are seizing that opportunity to think more broadly and strategically about our future and how to realise the full potential that HS2 offers.
Lord Heseltine said: “Let us now use economic recovery to spread wealth to every corner of our country. Nowhere is better placed to lead the rebalancing of the UK than the North. The combined might of great cities like Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds and the combined talent of the people who live there must have the chance to lead this vital part of our country as earlier generations so proudly did in earlier times of British excellence.”
The chancellor said the plan could cost up to £7bn - but could be cheaper if existing rail lines were updated but this will bring temporary disruption in the form of engineering works. The reality is that this can only be a vague estimate and until some serious optioneering has been carried out, no-one will really know what the cost might be. This will obviously depend on the route chosen and the associated topography crossing the Pennines, clearly not the same as with the HS2 route.
Examples of rail journey times were given by the media but they are not comparable because the nature of the selected routes are not like for like. For example, Leeds to Manchester through the hills takes about 49 minutes for 35 miles and Paddington to Reading, about the same distance but in essence flat, takes 28 minutes.
It would clearly makes sense so that many more people can benefit and the precedent has been set with Javelin’ services on HS1. These trains run at 140mph over HS1 and at lower speeds on conventional lines in Kent so using a similar train on HS2 and on a revamped route across the north of England makes sense. It must be remembered that the Transpennine route is to be electrified over the next few years so the trains will not be a problem.
So linking HS2 with HS3 via Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds would appear to make eminent sense. If built, it would create more capacity for freight services using the East Coast ports such as Immingham and Tyneside.
Mr Osborne added that HS3 should be based on the existing rail route but with new tunnels and improving made to other infrastructure. His stated aim would be to reduce travelling time to 30 minutes between Leeds and Manchester using 140mph trains, 50mph more than existing services.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s office was reported as saying that he welcomed Mr Osborne's plan, saying Mr Clegg had long believed Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield "should become a 'Northern golden triangle' to drive economic growth in the North".
He said: "George Osborne's new found commitment today is welcome and we are now hopeful that he will match his words with action by backing the Leeds City Region growth deal and its proposals for better transport links to other cities across the North."
How much detail exists in the proposal is anyones guess, but what is sure, electioneering has commenced demonstrated by the Chancellor saying he did not yet have timescales - but he wanted "to start a conversation". He said that despite the population of Manchester and Leeds was about 4.4 million, within a 40 mile radius of Manchester there was a catchment area that takes in Leeds, Sheffield and Liverpool, Lancashire, Cheshire and Yorkshire with ten million people.