HS2: Local response to uncertainty
A leading transport academic in Leeds has claimed cheaper alternatives to HS2 could be used if the Government decides to pull the plug on the Leeds leg of the multi-billion pound high speed rail scheme.
It follows a report which emerged over the weekend in The Mirror, which claimed a Government leak had ruled out the stretch of the line linking Birmingham with Leeds being built in the foreseeable future.
The Department for Transport has since said that no decisions on the part of the scheme, known as phase 2b, had yet been made, and all would be made clear in its long-awaited Integrated Rail Plan, which is yet to be published. The leader of Leeds City Council has called for the Government to end the uncertainty and finally publish the report.
But Dr Anthony Whiteing, a transport expert at the University of Leeds, has suggested that if the scheme were scrapped, a lower cost option could involve utilising parts of the UK’s existing underused railways in the Midlands and North of England.
He said: “The Government’s pretty much committed to Birmingham’s stretch already – all the parliamentary stuff has been passed for the Crewe to Manchester side, but they don’t have permission for the eastern leg at all, so it is less of a positive picture.
“Many have argued that the economic case does not stack up anyway, so I am a bit agnostic about HS2 and Leeds, but what I would say is that I personally suspect they might scrap the proposals for an expensive new alignment from East Midlands all the way up to Leeds and go for enhancements of existing rail track beds.
“You could get pretty much most of the way between East Midlands Parkway up to Leeds using railways that are already there and aren’t used fully, or reopening old lines that are pretty much still there.
“If you did that it would be massively cheaper than building a new rail line, but it would be significantly slower. Government people argue HS2 is more about capacity, so this could be much more viable proposal than to plough a new line across countryside. I suspect this could be being looked at.”
The comments follow a story which emerged in The Mirror over the weekend, which claimed a “Whitehall source” told them the Government was looking to scrap the eastern leg of HS2, which would link Birmingham with Nottingham, Sheffield and Leeds.
The paper reported the source as saying the Government had effectively run out of money for the scheme, and that there was “no way we’re going to see this built in our lifetimes”.
Responding to this, Coun James Lewis, leader of Leeds City Council and joint chair of the HS2 East group, said: “The eastern leg of HS2 represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to support the creation of over 160,000 new jobs, boost GVA by £300 billion, and lead to the development of as many as 38,000 new homes. The value of these benefits will pay for the costs of the new railway many times over.
“This ongoing uncertainty holds back the potential and ambitions of the Leeds City Region, and the wider North and Midlands, and will undermine investor confidence and blight businesses communities and development land for many years to come.
“We continue to urge the government to publish its Integrated Rail Plan, setting out a clear plan to build the Eastern Leg of HS2 in full – between Birmingham, East Midlands Hub at Toton, Chesterfield/Staveley, Sheffield, Leeds, and the North East.”
Dr Whiteing said that, while he was unconvinced about the ability of HS2 to “level up” the north against the south, he believed a lot of the anxieties felt by Yorkshire leaders were more focussed on the idea that their districts could be left behind by Manchester.
He said: “People say we need HS2 to level up, but I don’t buy that because I think the south will benefit as much as the north. I suspect folks in the east are worried about the dominance of Manchester in the north. That is a problem, I think.
“It’s about making sure that northeast and northwest have equal opportunities to level up.”
A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “The Integrated Rail Plan will soon outline exactly how major rail projects, including HS2 phase 2b [West Midlands to Leeds] and other transformational projects such as Northern Powerhouse Rail, will work together to deliver the reliable train services that passengers across the North and Midlands need and deserve.”
The DfT added that it would will consider “how to sequence the delivery of Phase 2b to ensure benefits are realised to a quicker timescale and to ensure it is integrated with plans for NPR and other rail investment projects”, and that “no decisions have been made in terms of the delivery of Phase 2b”.
Words: Richard Beecham, Local Democracy Reporter
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