MINISTERS have revealed they expect to receive proposals for the route of a high-speed rail line to Leeds in March as they faced fresh calls to make a binding commitment to complete the Yorkshire stretch of the network.
Engineers have spent months considering possible routes for the second phase of the High Speed Two (HS2) network, which will see the 250mph route extended from the Midlands through South Yorkshire to Leeds before joining up with the East Coast main line.
They are preparing to hand Ministers a final selection within weeks, including sites for stations. Leeds will have a city centre stop, but the location of the South Yorkshire station is the subject of fierce debate over whether it should be in the centre of Sheffield or outside the city, such as at Meadowhall, to serve other South Yorkshire towns as well.
Once Ministers have decided their favoured route they expect a major consultation to take place in 2014, by which time legislation for the first phase of the network – from London to Birmingham – should already be making its way through Parliament.
Transport Secretary Justine Greening said the £32.7bn HS2 network would create “jobs, growth and prosperity” and called the line “the most significant transport infrastructure project since the building of the motorways” as she confirmed she will press ahead despite fierce opposition from critics who argue it is too expensive and environmentally damaging.
Politicians and business leaders from across the region welcomed her decision but called for a firm commitment to building beyond Birmingham. Ministers say legislating for the entire route in one go would set back the London to Birmingham phase, but are considering whether they can legally pledge to complete the network.
Sheffield City Council leader Julie Dore backed high-speed rail but said: “We need to fight the city’s corner and stand up for the people of Sheffield to make sure the Government does not renege on their commitment to the entire high-speed rail network.
“It is only by doing this that they will instil confidence that the entire network will be realised as planned. Both these phases should be implemented simultaneously.”
Coun James Lewis, chairman of West Yorkshire transport authority Metro, also said he would press for the Government to firm up on legislation for the Birmingham to Leeds section, while Leeds North West MP Greg Mulholland vowed to fight for the Leeds link to be built as quickly as possible.
Tim Hale, chairman of Champion Hire Ltd, said: “The decision of the government to approve the HS2 line to Birmingham is hugely welcome. However, businesses in Sheffield also want to see an urgent commitment to the second part of the plan – extending the North-Eastern part of the Y-link through Sheffield and on up to Leeds and beyond.”
Ben Still, director of strategy at South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive, said high-speed rail would give a “tremendous boost” to the local economy and ensure Sheffield City Region remains attractive to investors.
Research has suggested the line to Leeds could bring benefits of between £2bn and £4.2bn to the region’s economy as journey times are slashed.
Leeds City Council executive member for development and economy Coun Richard Lewis said the decision was “hugely welcome”, adding: “High-speed rail would not only transform rail journeys to and from the north of England, it would also bring massive benefits in terms of the potential for Leeds and the surrounding area to develop further as a major hub for business, investment, jobs and leisure.”
Pudsey’s Tory MP Stuart Andrew said he was “delighted”, while Labour’s Leeds West MP Rachel Reeves said it was an “important step” but warned the announcement could be a “hollow promise” without a commitment to Leeds.
Keighley MP Kris Hopkins asked Ministers to guarantee northern firms would get a fair chance of winning contracts so HS2 “doesn’t just become an opportunity to refill southern coffers”.
Comment: Page 12.