It could work: Osborne’s vision for fast northern rail network

David Cameron with   Chancellor George Osborne as they host a roundtable meeting with business and LEP representatives at The Science and Industry in Manchester.
David Cameron with Chancellor George Osborne as they host a roundtable meeting with business and LEP representatives at The Science and Industry in Manchester.
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CHANCELLOR George Osborne’s plan for a new northern England high-speed rail link is “feasible and by no means impractical”, according to a rail expert.

But the Institute of Economic Affairs dubbed the scheme “a headline vanity project”.

Planners and engineers dealing with transport links across northern England have to take into account the millstone grit which accounts for much of the landscape.

But such difficult terrain has been dealt with before and can be again, according to Jim Steer, director of high-speed rail research company Greengauge 21.

“There’s no question the Osborne plan is feasible. it’s by no means impractical,” said Mr Steer, a former managing director of strategic planning at the Strategic Rail Authority.

He went on: “The Swiss are building tunnels through the Alps so it should be possible to build them through the Pennines.

“Also, this will be a different project to, say, Crossrail in London. There will be no need for stations or to take existing structures into account.

“Clearly, the route will have to be chosen carefully. But there is certainly a need for better cross-Pennine transport links.

Mr Steer continued: “Rail journey times across the Pennies are incredibly slow, only averaging around 40mph. Between Sheffield and Manchester you’re lucky to average 40mph by car as there is no motorway.

“A new route would provide so many options. You could run high-speed Channel Tunnel Eurostar trains along the route as well as freight. It would be a big boost for the north of England.

But Richard Wellings, deputy editorial director and head of transport at the Institute of Economic Affairs, was far from impressed with the Osborne plan.

He said: “The relatively short distances between northern cities mean that high-speed rail is an expensive and inefficient way of linking them together.

“The Chancellor should be focusing on smaller-scale schemes that deliver high returns for the taxpayer or, better still, that can be financed privately, rather than concocting a headline-grabbing vanity project designed to attract votes.

“Not content with wasting tens of billions on the loss-making HS2 scheme, George Osborne is now threatening to compound the error by forcing taxpayers to fund HS3.”

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