Friday, 15 May 2015

Northern Powerhouse must include HS2

There are typically five times more express trains per hour between Manchester and Leeds than there are between Leeds and Birmingham. HS2 Phase 2 would address this imbalance in non-London connectivity. Photo: T Miles.
Few phrases have been uttered more frequently in the wake of May 7’s general election than ‘the Northern Powerhouse’, a package of devolution proposals intended to decentralise government towards cities from Westminster. At the time of writing, transport – and specifically rail – is at the forefront of the plans, having also been a central plank in various policy reports issued over several years by bodies such as IPPR North.

The role of rail in the Northern Powerhouse focuses less on transport user advantages and instead accentuates wider economic benefits, such as improved labour market connectivity and agglomeration gains identified in other large semi-integrated conurbations, such as Germany’s Ruhr Valley region and the Dutch Randstad. Such philosophy has led the previous and current governments to back plans to invest up to £15bn on enhanced rail links between northern cities, but in practice this had coalesced into various options for new or very extensively upgraded corridors between Manchester and Leeds. This has, in turn, predictably led to calls for a ‘Crossrail of the North’ to be prioritised ahead of other railway projects, notably the second phase of High Speed 2. Indeed, economists and business commentators now take the benefits of some form of ‘High Speed 3’ advancing while HS2 is gleefully cancelled as almost absolute truths.

The ubiquitous Christian Wolmar aside, few transport commentators are so quick to leap to this conclusion, and with good reason. First, there is the blunt reality that rail’s most established and commercially-viable market is serving London, which is the origin or destination for almost two-thirds of all passenger-journeys. The corollary of this market reality is that the economics of regional railways are much more fragile, since volumes are less and yields lower. This in no sense undermines the case for improving rail links in the regions, but it does mean that major infrastructure works which do not have a ‘baseload’ London market attached to them are going to be more delicate to deliver.

The hurdles facing HS3 can be put into context by the highly unusual bureaucratic intervention required to ensure the replacement of the much-maligned ‘Pacer’ railbuses could be included in the next Northern passenger rail franchise. A letter released by the Department for Transport lays bare just how little of the benefits of new trains can be captured by established transport business case methodology.

Which brings us back to wider economic benefits. These ‘WEBs’ form a relatively small part of the economic case for HS2, which would link London with Leeds, Manchester and points north in a 540 km network centred on Birmingham. The chronic shortage of paths (let us not be distracted by load factor, a capacity red herring) on our north-south main lines, and the comparable cost of vastly less effective incremental upgrading schemes have ensured HS2 has made it to the hybrid bill committee stage, for the first phase at least.

Some of these issues can help spur the HS3 idea too, but if we are serious about improving non-London connectivity then the merits of HS2’s second phase must not be so routinely overlooked. The most stark comparison is to assess connectivity in the triangle between Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester. Today, there a whopping eight trains per hour linking Leeds and Manchester taking three different routes. Of these, five are express services with a standard timing of around 50 min. Contrast this with the Birmingham – Leeds axis, where only one train typically operates each hour and the journey time is almost 2 h. HS2 would cut that journey in half and offer at least twice as many trains – not that you’d know that from any media outlet whatsoever, including HS2 Ltd’s own communications team.

More pertinently still, HS2 has a key role to play in fostering the Northern Powerhouse itself by connecting the Sheffield/Barnsley/Rotherham area (assuming a Meadowhall station) with Leeds and York, while connections to the East Coast Main Line at Colton pave the way for a reduction in Newcastle – Birmingham travel times of around an hour, again with improved frequencies. And DfT and rail industry groups have long suggested that electrification can enable HS2 to be plugged into the cross-country network too, with trains originating in Bristol or Cardiff and sharing the new railway between Birmingham and York. A link with the conventional network in the Washwood Heath area of Birmingham to enable this should be added to the ongoing legislation for HS2's first phase.

Us northerners should nevertheless take heart that the wider economic benefits of rail investment, which for HS2 have been so roundly castigated by some in the London commentariat, are after all strong enough on their own to justify some form of HS3. But it would be exceptionally myopic to pursue this bold agenda for cross-Pennine connectivity while at the same time ditching more pressing enhancements, which include electrification, East Coast Main Line works and, yes, the northern sections of HS2.

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