Towns and cities across the country were promised the benefit of an extended high-speed rail network as the government on Monday unveiled a proposed route carefully designed to win over a sceptical nation to HS2.
Alongside Manchester and Leeds, the promised destinations of the Y-shaped second phase, the transport secretary said places from Milton Keynes to Newcastle would be boosted by the new links and increased capacity brought by the £33bn project. He promised the first major railway line north of London since Victorian times would create 100,000 jobs.
While business chiefs and councils in the north broadly welcomed the announcement, some questioned the decision to build out-of-town stations. Stops in Leicestershire and Warwickshire – which do not have existing stations – and Cheshire emerged as potential flashpoints.
The second phase of HS2 will add branches north to Manchester and Leeds to the London-Birmingham route confirmed last year. On the western side, the route will run past Crewe and further north of Manchester to rejoin the west coast main line. This design will shorten train times between London and Liverpool, which protested at being left off the map, as well as substantially cutting the journey time to Scotland.
The spur running east along the M56, ending via a 7.5 mile tunnel at a new terminal alongside Piccadilly in Manchester city centre, will also include an extra stop at the city’s airport. After the protests over HS2’s southern route through the Chilterns – an area that receives none of the benefits of HS2 – the government was keen to bolster support in areas of Cheshire facing years of construction and blight with an accessible stop for a one-hour journey to the capital.
On the eastern branch, Sheffield’s promised South Yorkshire stop will be outside the city at Meadowhall. This is likely to dismay those hoping it would help revitalise the urban centre because the transfer time may negate the benefits of the faster trains.
A station near the M1 at Toton, between Nottingham, and Derby, will be the other stop on the eastern branch, as planners try to balance the demand for multiple stops with the extended journeys it would mean.
The journey to Leeds will take 57 minutes from Birmingham, less than half the time it takes today, with a new terminal close to the city centre. The track will also run north towards York to join up with the east coast main line – making Newcastle just 2 hours 18 minutes from the capital.
A direct link to Heathrow, planned for phase two, has been deferred, but supporters say HS2’s new London interchange at Old Oak Common with Crossrail will make the airport far more accessible.
The transport secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, told the Commons that HS2 was not about speed. “Rail passenger numbers have doubled over last 15 years and demand will keep growing. The case for going ahead rests on the capacity it will provide and the new connections it will create – changing the way our great cities interact,” he said.
He promised that it was neither all about reaching London, though the line would free up space for commuters in Milton Keynes and Staffordshire – as well as freight – on existing lines.
He added: “I am determined to make sure the benefits run much wider than the places on the line.”
McLoughlin has agreed to bring forward consultation dates and will ask his department to review the timetable to try to deliver HS2 to the north before 2033. He also promised more generous compensation to homeowners with a exceptional hardship scheme to guarantee that those affected by blight could sell their houses.
But a series of Tory MPs, whose constituencies lie on the new route, warned McLoughlin in the Commons that they would challenge his plans. Michael Fabricant, the MP for Lichfield who is a former colleague of McLoughlin’s in the whips’ office, said: “While I do accept the need for an additional line to relieve capacity on the rail network, this route plunges through rural Britain, rural Staffordshire, and should use existing transport corridors. It blights the environment, homes and lives.”
Andrea Leadsom, the MP for South Northamptonshire, said to McLoughlin: “I urge [you] not to take the word of [your] departmental officials but to look at the impact of the exceptional hardship scheme on many constituents whose lives have been utterly destroyed by incompetent and completely inconsistent panels. Secondly, I urge [you] to reconsider a property bond. Although officials have said there is no evidence that that works, it would be the one way to ensure that the blight that extends for miles in my constituency is removed.”
Earlier George Osborne said HS2, which will pass through his Tatton constituency, was in the national interest. He said the economic benefits to all communities were “pretty compelling” but would not come overnight and said Britain had not undertaken enough of such big projects. He agreed it would be “very difficult” for households close to the proposed rail line, but said the government had chosen a route to cause the minimum disruption.
The prime minister, David Cameron, said: “Linking communities and businesses across the country and shrinking the distances between our greatest cities, high-speed rail is an engine for growth that will help to drive regional regeneration and invigorate our regional economies.”
For Labour, the shadow transport secretary, Maria Eagle, urged McLoughlin to bring forward the timetable, and said she hoped there would be “a dialogue with cities” such as Sheffield which were concerned by the out-of-town parkway developments.
She also criticised the current “back of an envelope plans” to link HS2 with the existing HS1 route from St Pancras to the continent, which threaten to disrupt London overground rail services, and said that postponing Heathrow’s link was “a major policy error”, adding: “Surely the asnwer wasn’t to slow down decisions on HS2 but speed them up for aviation.”
Business leaders and politicians in the north have been clamouring for the route. But economists are divided on whether the benefits will flow to the regions or further boost London and the south-east, based on studies from France and Spain.
If the north was always going to be more favourable to HS2, the initial reactions to HS2 have also been relatively warm from the Campaign to Protect Rural England, which said the largely brownfield route avoided nationally designated landscapes, grade I or II* listed buildings, and would only affect one site of special scientific interest. However, it warned that the new Manchester airport stop would put further pressure on the north Cheshire green belt, and said it was concerned about the potential impact of the route on high quality countryside in Staffordshire and Cheshire. CPRE local campaigners in Warwickshire meanwhile denounced the plans.
Campaigners expect new local protest groups to spring up. Councils across the Chilterns form the nucleus of the 51m opposition group, and have been joined notably by Camden, the London borough which is set to see hundreds of homes demolished under the redevelopment and massive expansion of Euston station. A group of 32 leading transport planners and academics last week warned the coalition that grand projects to create a stimulus for the flatlining economy risked backfiring, and could not guarantee the employment or growth they promised.
The high court is due to pass judgment imminently on legal challenges brought by opposition campaigners, who claim that the previous consultation on the London-Birmingham route was mishandled. Hilary Wharf of the HS2 action alliance questioned why the rest of the network was to be announced before the court’s judgment: “It shows the government’s indifference to proper process.”
The route will go out to a full public consultation. Legislation to enact the first phase of HS2 is to be brought later this year, with a view to the first trains, from London to Birmingham,running in 2026. The full network should be operational in 2033.
HS2 route: ministers tread a fine line to win over sceptical nation – The Guardian
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