PLANNING for the new high-speed rail stations at Leeds and Sheffield should begin next year with a view to construction work commencing as early as 2020, the new head of HS2 has said.
Speaking to the Yorkshire Post, Sir David Higgins said he is “passionate” about bringing the benefits of the new £50bn rail line to the north of England as quickly as possible as he embarks upon a two-month review of the project for Government.
Sir David said he has already spoken to senior Ministers about the possibility of speeding up the lengthy Parliamentary process which is not currently expected to see the final HS2 Bill given Royal Assent until late 2020.
The HS2 chairman confirmed he will also speak to the Treasury about speeding up its annual spend on the project to try to finish the line more quickly than its planned 2033 completion date.
But he made clear he also wants to see Northern cities such as Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester begin construction work on their new HS2 stations as soon as the Bill becomes law, in order to deliver the huge regeneration benefits as quickly as possible.
“I’ve made the point when I’ve spoken to Government – why does the Bill take until the end of 2020 to get through?” he asked. “That’s something that’s entirely within the control of Parliament.
“And if that can be brought forward, why don’t we immediately start developing on the Northern side, and bring those benefits earlier? I particularly like the idea in Yorkshire and in Leeds, for example, of building the shell of the station as soon as you get started – as soon as you get Royal Assent.
“It gives confidence to the industry to invest, to say it is going to happen.”
The new HS2 stations are expected to spark huge regeneration schemes in their local areas – particularly in Leeds and Manchester, where they will be located in busy city centre areas.
Transport planners point to the transformation of the area around King’s Cross in central London following the refurbishment of St Pancras station and the opening of its high-speed rail link to the continent. The once-shabby area has been overhauled and new businesses such as Google attracted to set up headquarters nearby.
It is hoped the huge new HS2 stations in the North will have similar effects, which Sir David said could be brought forward by early construction work.
“While the trains may come in 2033 – I am hoping earlier – (businesses) would know that it’s going to come, because they’ve committed to the station already,” Sir David said.
“And therefore other businesses that want to come in and develop around it can do that.
“I know Manchester is thinking in exactly the same way – they’re not going to wait until 2033 to start redeveloping around the station.”
The proposed Leeds New Lane station is to be built just to the south of the River Aire in the city centre, linked to the existing station by a pedestrian walkway.
In Sheffield, however, the regeneration benefits are likely to be less profound if the Government confirms its plan to site the station outside the city at Meadowhall.
Sir David said he would listen closely to Sheffield City Council’s calls for a city centre location, but made clear his priority now is to build HS2 as quickly and efficiently as possible.
“Clearly we will consult with Sheffield – we do want to hear the concerns,” he said. “But I think the most important thing is connectivity – how is Sheffield connected into the service?
“It’s crucial the proposed station at Meadowhall is connected to all forms (of transport) – both tram and train services.”
Sir David, who oversaw the successful delivery of the London 2012 Olympics before becoming head of Network Rail, took up his new £591,000-a-year job as chairman of HS2 Ltd last week.
He has been asked by Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin to immediately review the controversial project, with a view to completing it faster and more cheaply than currently planned. He will report back by mid-March.
Sir David said he could see “no reason” why construction work could not begin in the North at the same time as in the South – so delivering the railway significantly more quickly than planned.
“It’s early days – I’m only a week into the job,” he said. “I don’t want to raise unrealistic expectations.
“But if you look at the leg that goes up from Birmingham to Yorkshire, it is not the most complicated part of the route from an engineering point of view.”
Sir David said one of the key benefits of HS2 would be the massive improvement in reliability passengers will find when using a 21st century railway, compared with the ageing east coast mainline which suffers frequent delays.
“It won’t be (the case that) the network has gone down because they’ve had some embankment collapse, or problems with the ageing wires or ageing tracks, basically because it’s a Victorian railway,” Sir David said.
“It’ll be a service that operates all the time, even in heavy conditions. That level of reliability gives business confidence.”
Sir David added that the improved journey times between major cities would have an enormous impact on Leeds and Sheffield.
“I think it will transform these cities – how they link to each other, but also how they relate to the South,” he said.
“It will take a journey which, in the case of Leeds today, takes a bit over two hours every half hour, into a one-hour (and 20 minutes) service every 20 minutes.
“When Leeds went to a two-hour service from London, quite a number of law firms and financial services relocated to Leeds because it’s that much more cost efficient.
“The two-hour service did that – so what will the one-hour connection do? It’s going to be a transformation.”
The exact route of the second phase of the line linking Birmingham to Yorkshire has yet to be finalised, with the Government’s preferred option currently out to consultation.
A final decision is expected by the end of the year.
Leeds City Council’s executive member for the economy, Coun Richard Lewis, said the authority supports the scheme but will continue to lobby for the route to be changed to reduce the negative impact on some communities in the south of the city.
“Undoubtedly a high-speed rail link connecting Leeds more closely to the rest of country could bring unprecedented economic benefits to the city and wider region,” he said.
“However, much work remains to finalise the route and the design and to properly address the impacts on local neighbourhoods before a satisfactory scheme is achieved. This is a once-in-a-generation investment opportunity that we are committed to by doing all we can to ensure we get the best possible benefits for our city and our region.”