Andrew Jones: Tunnel plans show commitment to the North

THE Prime Minister wrote in The Yorkshire Post recently of her commitment to building a Northern Powerhouse, and of Yorkshire's central role in that plan.

A tunnel could be built under the Pennines to bypass the notorious Snake Pass.

She made clear that the Government will help our remarkable county achieve its full potential, including by spending on transport, encouraging tourism, backing private investment and devolving power.

Like the Prime Minister, I read this paper’s Yorkshire Day edition earlier this month. As a Yorkshire MP and a Government transport minister, I was particularly interested in the paper’s view of Yorkshire’s transport needs.

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The paper recognised what’s been achieved in Yorkshire in recent years, including new roads and upgrades to existing ones, new rail franchises and progress on electrifying Yorkshire’s most important rail lines. It has also called for the Government to see through our commitment to HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail, otherwise known as HS3.

But I have been glad to see this paper urging progress on an ambitious proposal that sometimes gets too little attention: a new road connecting Sheffield and Manchester through a tunnel under the Pennines in the Peak District.

The case for a tunnel is clear. Manchester and Sheffield are just 38 miles apart, yet it takes over an hour and 20 minutes to travel between them by car. That’s about the time it takes to drive between Southampton and Oxford, twice the distance.

A tunnel under the Peak District would cut the driving time between Sheffield and Manchester by almost half. And it would protect drivers from the closures that hit the existing roads an average of once every 11 days, usually because of bad weather.

The poor performance of these routes is not surprising. The shortest route between Sheffield and Manchester – Snake Pass – was completed by Thomas Telford in 1821. In its day it was a pioneering project, but Snake Pass wasn’t designed with motor vehicles in mind, let alone the volume of traffic it now carries.

So this month I was pleased to announce further progress on our plans for a road tunnel under the Peak District.

We published a report identifying the three possible corridors a tunnel could take, with each linking the M1 north of Sheffield to Manchester’s M60 ring road.

The report makes clear that delivery of the tunnel is both technically feasible and offers great benefits to our region. As well as the journey savings, we could see traffic on some of the existing roads fall by up to 90 per cent.

A tunnel would also bring benefits to the Peaks themselves. Putting traffic underground will reduce noise, light and air pollution in one of Britain’s most beautiful and ecologically valuable landscapes.

Of course, while a tunnel is feasible, it’s still an ambitious proposal. Its construction would be as much an engineering feat as Telford’s original Snake Pass. And on completion it would be among the longest road tunnels in Europe.

Yet with careful planning it can be done, and last week’s report was an important milestone. It will be followed by a final report in the autumn recommending the best route of the current three. We will then take a decision on whether to proceed.

Our planning for a tunnel under the Pennines in the Peak District shows we are thinking long-term. Meanwhile, other changes this paper called for in its Yorkshire Day edition are already underway.

Our Buses Bill, which will give councils new powers to deliver better journeys, is currently before Parliament.

We have signed new deals with train companies, leading to a £1.2bn boost to rail services in the North. Five hundred brand-new carriages will be brought into service and old Pacers will be retired.

We have pledged £150m so Transport for the North can introduce smart ticketing across the North, and later this year TfN will present us with their plans for putting the systems in place.

Plans such as these are already having a positive effect. As the Prime Minister wrote in her article, there are now 137,000 more jobs and 50,000 more small businesses in Yorkshire than there were in 2010. The case for investing in Yorkshire’s transport has rarely been stronger, and under Theresa May’s government, that investment will continue.

Andrew Jones is the MP for Harrogate and a transport minister.