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HS2: vital for the north, or just a quick escape route?

Leeds should do well, but what about the surrounding towns? Lad2011

HS2: vital for the north, or just a quick escape route?

David Cameron said recently that opponents of HS2 are “putting the future of the north of England at risk”. Is he right? Professors Colin Bamford and Paul Salveson from the University of Huddersfield present differing views on HS2.

Bamford: give it the green light

Of late, the media has been saturated with data, arguments and counter arguments from politicians, business leaders, rail experts and those likely to be affected by the project. I have changed my mind – I was very sceptical a few years back when Lord Adonis first announced the plan. I now believe HS2 should go ahead, not least because of the boost it will give to the regional economies of the north, especially Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire.

A major concern of those against HS2 is its cost, now estimated to be £42 billion including a large contingency. That’s certainly a lot, but it is money well spent. The latest benefit-cost ratio is 2.3 to 1, a marginal fall from earlier estimates, but it remains a decent return. For every pound invested in the project, we can expect a return of £2.30.

Like other parts of the cost-benefit analysis, it is extremely tough to decipher the regional development benefits of HS2. However we can say that, elsewhere in the world, high-speed rail links have created regional jobs which in turn stimulate regional economies. And it’s not just the links: the rail project itself will create jobs. People will be needed to construct the lines and the stations, to develop and build the trains, and eventually to operate HS2.

Here in the north, Manchester and Leeds will be the main areas to benefit; this assessment is confirmed by impact studies that have been carried out elsewhere. Leeds is already a significant financial centre and HS2 must surely accelerate its growth. Office rents and property prices are much lower than London and, quite recently, Yorkshire was voted Europe’s Leading Destination at the World Travel Awards. Surely these factors will counteract the view that London will suck jobs and businesses from the north if HS2 is built.

We should be bold and support HS2. There ought to be a “feel good” factor involved here. It is about time people stopped moaning about it.

Salveson: steady on there

A friend who is a senior manager in the railway industry told me recently “there hasn’t been any debate over HS2 – just arguments” and he is right. We are being presented with an “all-or-nothing” scheme which, we are told, will bring great benefits to the north and economic decline if it is rejected.

As someone who is passionately pro-rail (including high-speed) and wants to see a strong and sustainable northern economy, I remain unconvinced by any of this. The scheme as presented gives very poor connectivity within the north and the UK as a whole. It risks simply sucking economic activity out of the north and down to London.

We need to think very carefully about giving an open-ended commitment to this particular scheme. Alternatives are available, and we should argue for a re-think.

Better connectivity across the north and Midlands is essential. All major centres should see the benefits, not just Leeds and Manchester (and to a degree, Sheffield). We need much better rail links with parts of the Midlands and Scotland; HS2 does not give this.

Any new high-speed rail system should be at the core of an expanding network including much-improved east-west links. The “Northern Hub” is little more than an incremental improvement which will not provide the capacity we need for a major change in trans-Pennine links.

The scheme is being engineered for very high speeds – 400km/h – which imposes a major straitjacket on the route, resulting in several major population centres being by-passed. At Leeds in particular the terminus is to be some distance from the current mainline station, forcing passengers to make an unattractive walk to connecting trains. Successful high-speed lines across Europe are mostly integrated with existing hubs, allowing people to make easy and rapid interchange.

Even Manchester Piccadilly is less than ideal – trains should run through Manchester and continue north to Scotland and west to Liverpool. In Leeds, high-speed trains should continue east to York via the main station on an expanded four-track route.

We need a fundamental review of the route which is currently proposed. There are alternatives which could use former railway lines or motorway corridors which are less environmentally destructive and potentially serve more places. In my new book Railpolitik, I explore the arguments in more detail.

I would like to see high-speed rail serving the north. But we can get much more for the same (or less) money through a revised scheme which provides much improved connectivity across the north rather than just the main centres.

I’m not on my own – a growing number of politicians and business leaders are voicing similar concerns. There’s a need for a Northern “High Speed – Yes! HS2 – No thanks!” campaign which can present a serious, evidence-based alternative.