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Crossrail of the North

HS2 chairman Sir David Higgins has urged the creation of a new east-west rail link between the two prongs of Britain’s future Y-shaped high-speed rail network.

The conclusions of his report, ‘Rebalancing Britain: from HS2 towards a national transport strategy,’ have been broadly welcomed by the government, which is dubbed HS3.

Higgins envisages a new intercity railway between Manchester and Leeds. This trans-Pennine route will unite a series of smaller projects, upgrading existing lines and constructing new tunnelled sections – some of which can be delivered during existing electrification programmes, says Higgins. Journey times between Leeds and Manchester could be halved from 55 minutes to 25-35 minutes. In turn this will help create a ‘Greater North’ economic region to rival London and the South East. Sir David, with his habitual Australian pragmatism, suggests setting up a five-city authority called Transport for the North to maximise the new high speed rail network and deliver a more complete transport strategy.

Sir David believes the new link could be as important to the north of England as Crossrail is for the South East. He said, ’Improving connectivity is vital if Britain is to compete in the knowledge economy in which this country has a competitive advantage, but in which ease of travel is an essential element. Knowledge-based companies whether they are in high-tech manufacturing, the creative industries, finance or the law, have to be close, or feel close to the talent, skills base, support network, knowledge pools, collaborators and clients necessary to create the hot-house atmosphere in which they thrive. That is why reducing the journey times between and within our cities isn’t just desirable for both passengers and freight. It is a strategic necessity.’

It has been estimated that the line could cost around £6-7 billion to construct – significantly less than the £20 billion Crossrail 2 price tag. Speaking at the launch of the report, Prime Minister David Cameron said, ‘I think it’s really important for our country that we make high-speed rail work for Britain as it has for other countries.’

The report also made several recommendations about a number of localised issues along the HS2 route. It concluded that the line should be extended to Crewe by 2027 – six years earlier than the original timetable. It also pointed to a need to further review the location of high-speed rail stations in Leeds, South Yorkshire and the East Midlands. In Leeds that means looking at how the city’s main railway station can be redeveloped to accommodate HS2 rather than sending high-speed trains south of the River Aire to a new station at New Lane. It was also Higgins’ belief that Meadowhall, not the city centre, was the right location for Sheffield’s HS2 connection.

The One North report published in August suggested the east-west link should have freight terminals at either end, like Eurotunnel, creating a drive-on facility for road freight. The freight industry has already been trying to open a dialogue with HS2 about exactly how it can benefit from the new railway, whether that takes the form of high-speed freight or extra train paths on the West Coast main line. Maggie Simpson, Rail Freight Group (RFG) executive director, said, ‘Rail freight needs to be at the heart of any strategy to improve transport links from Liverpool to Hull.’

Says Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin, ‘Our northern cities are on the brink of an economic transformation and today’s report (27 October) underlines how we can secure this by bringing those cities together to maximise the benefits of good transport links. HS2 is crucial to this, and I welcome Sir David’s findings on how we can ensure the phase two route delivers maximum economic benefits throughout the Midlands and the North. But as he says, it is only through linking the east and west of the region that we can really unlock these benefits, not just along the route itself but right across the north.’

The report has now been submitted to Parliament and a detailed plan for the Phase Two route is expected in 2015.

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