I am a train enthusiast. There, I have confessed, although most of my colleagues in Leeds have known this for years and I promise that it is only a coincidence that our new offices are at Platform, immediately above the station.
Last month, the Leeds economy received a considerable boost with the induction into passenger service of the new LNER Azuma trains, supplementing the old 125 and 225 intercity trains which have been a mainstay of the Leeds to London line for upwards of 30 years.
The aim of the new Azuma train programme is to boost capacity , which is estimated at an additional 28 per cent when in full service, and ultimately to reduce journey times. Unfortunately, the new speedier timetable is unlikely to be introduced until December 2020, to allow time for all of the new trains to come in to service - we are expecting one a week during 2019.
This will mean there will soon be 65 trains running from London northwards along the east coast mainline compared with the current 45. To help service this, a new £80million train depot has opened in Doncaster to house the new rolling stock.
Have a look at it out of the window on the eastern side of the tracks next time you’re speeding through. It’s impressive. The new trains are built by Hitachi and are inspired by the Japanese bullet trains, although the bullet trains run at 200 mph and the Azuma will have a line speed of 125 mph.
Whilst that may seem modest, it’s the advertised acceleration that I’m excited about. It’s also notable that the trains have been built in the north at Newton Aycliffe in County Durham with around 70 per cent of the parts having been sourced from in and around the north-east.
The new Azuma trains will also improve connections to other northern cities with direct services by state-owned LNER to Middlesbrough and Huddersfield planned this year and additional direct services to Harrogate from December 2019 and Bradford from May 2020.
The Azuma can run on diesel or electric power and can thus reach parts of the northern network that haven’t previously been possible by the electrified 225s. Signs then that the government‘s intentions for the Northern Powerhouse are not dead, even if serious plans to improve connectivity east to west remain on the drawing board.
While we in Leeds remain sceptical about HS2 - the latest estimate is 2033 and £56bn - this recent improved rail connectivity is welcomed with open arms.
The relocation of Channel 4 to Leeds, together with a number of other Government office relocations has meant that the Leeds office market is booming and it is expected that the Channel 4 stimulus will bring an even stronger creative economy to the city to supplement its long-standing position as a leading financial and legal services centre.
Better connectivity aids the residential market, especially at a time when fledgling “Build to Rent” schemes by landlords such as Dandara, Grainger, Legal & General and Moda will come to the market for over the next 24 months.
Leeds aims to compete with London and Manchester for young professionals so improving the rail offering helps draw tenants to the city centre and keeps them there. I can see the housing markets in the towns and cities served by improved direct train services to the capital, benefitting significantly in due course.
A regular direct train from Huddersfield to London at around two and a half hours can’t fail to perk up demand for housing in the town.
It’s also good to see residents and businesses in Hull, Brough and Selby getting an Azuma service early on in the roll out. On a weekday you can leave Hull at 7am and be in London before 10 am.
To accommodate rail growth and the 31 million passengers who come through Leeds station every year, there is a major refurbishment of the Leeds station concourse and a remodelling of the western approach.
This is being re-designed to allow the track to follow a simpler layout, reduce delays and also install a new platform on the site of the Riverside car park.
This s due to be completed during 2021, irrespective of how HS2 plays out.
To underscore the power of rail, the Leeds and Bradford areas welcomed three brand new railway stations in the last three years at Kirkstall Forge, Low Moor and Apperley Bridge.
Kirkstall Forge station kick-started a £400m urban neighbourhood by CEG extending the “city centre“ through a four- minute rail journey from Leeds city station to the new rail halt. Phase one of the new office development has tenants such as Mercedes, BUPA and Zenith. It’s unlikely they would have chosen the location were it not for the railway and these office staff bring house buyers and tenants.
The Leeds economy is expected to grow by about 8.5 per cent in the next five years which will make it one of the fastest growing city economies in Europe. The railway is playing its part in this.