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Second phase of High Speed line announced

The second phase of the high speed line to the north has now been announced. North-west of Birmingham it splits in two, with one branch going to Manchester and the other to Leeds. There are city centre stations planned at Leeds and Manchester, Sheffield gets a station at the edge of town, Derby and Nottingham get a station halfway between the two, and there is also a station at Manchester Airport, serving the more affluent suburbs of the city. The two lines go on either side of the Derby Dales constituency with its National Park, which also happens to be the Secretary of State for Transport’s constituency, the large black area on the map. The projected cost is £33 billion, the completion date is 2033 and the economic benefit is claimed to be about twice the cost of construction. There has so far been no statement about how the construction of the line is to be financed.

There are just a few points to be made from our perspective.

  • Whatever economic benefit it will give rise to will end up in landowners’ pockets. They get a free lunch.
  • The long construction time means a very extended credit period, during which financing costs will accumulate until the trains start running and revenue begins to flow in.
  • Merseyside gets nothing.

It is unclear what the project is meant to achieve. If the aim is to reduce internal air flights, then the absence of a Heathrow station will not encourage people arriving at Britain’s main hub airport to continue their journey by train, and conversely. And what of London’s other airports?

The provision of what are inevitably going to be park-and-ride stations will lead to congestion in the roads around, unless provision is made for upgrading the local transport infrastructure. In fact, the high speed line does little to reduce car use at all.

We are told that there is a need to increase capacity, but this could be largely achieved by upgrading existing lines and reopening routes closed in the 1960s, where the track bed is often substantially intact even after all these years. The cost of construction, equipment and operation of a high speed railway is much higher than that of a conventional speed one – costs are roughly proportional to speed-squared. A conventional speed railway can opened in smaller stages as it is completed, so that revenue starts flowing in sooner.

It is also questionable whether the Y-trunk configuration effectively services the pattern of development in the country. 75% of the population lives in a core area bounded in the north by Leeds and Manchester. From there southwards all the way to the Channel coast development consists of large conurbations and an even spread of towns of between 100,000 and 250,000, in the process of joining up. That calls for a network to cater for as many diverse journey opportunities as possible. If there is a need for high speed routes at all, it is from Scotland and the North East, southwards towards this core area.

The predictable storm of objections has been raised by NIMBYS but it is unlikely that the real issues will get raised in the public forum.