Two years ago, the shock announcement that HS2 intended to divert a key section of its planned high-speed railway line in Yorkshire through previously unaffected homes, businesses and farmland was swiftly followed by an olive branch of sorts – a promise to investigate the possibility of building a Â£300m parkway station to serve their affected communities.
But with HS2 now refusing to publish any details of a feasibility study that was completed last summer, coupled with an apparent lack of further progress since then, it seems the idea is being shunted into the sidings.
HS2 has rejected a Freedom of Information request by The Yorkshire Post to see the report on the grounds that Ministers and senior officials in the Department for Transport who will make the final decision need a “safe space” in which to discuss the findings “away from public scrutiny”. It is the latest development in a saga that anti-HS2 campaigners have labelled “a dog’s dinner”.
In July 2016, following a long-running row between political leaders in South Yorkshire about whether the region’s HS2 station should either be based at the then-preferred location of Meadowhall to the north of Sheffield or in Sheffield city centre, HS2 put forward a cost-saving compromise that it said would save about Â£1bn from the national cost of the project but left no one in the area entirely satisfied.
Instead of a new station being built as had been hoped, the Meadowhall option was scrapped in favour of HS2’s cheaper option of adopting the existing station to support high-speed trains, with a ‘spur’ running off the main route into the city.
While Sheffield Council claimed the decision as a victory for its campaign for a city-centre location, South Yorkshire was ultimately left without a dedicated new station and Sheffield was off the main HS2 route, with trains from the city to London now due to take longer and run less frequently than those from Leeds 40 miles to the north.
More pertinently for residents living in rural areas of Rotherham and Doncaster, as well as near Wakefield in West Yorkshire, they suddenly found themselves in the path of the revised main route running close to the M18 motorway that cut through businesses, farmland and properties including an entire new housing estate in Mexborough.
The ensuing backlash soon led to a commitment from Transport Secretary Chris Grayling to work up a remit for the building of a parkway station on what had become known as the ‘M18 route’, with the Government suggesting the study would be completed by spring 2017.
In December 2016, HS2 chairman Sir David Higgins told MPs that idea of the station was ‘very attractive’ and would take pressure off the increasingly congested M1 and A1 roads. The following month, it was announced eight potential locations – Bramley, Wales and Hooton Roberts in Rotherham, Clayton, Mexborough and Hickleton in Doncaster and Fitzwilliam and Hemsworth in Wakefield – had been identified as possible new homes for what would be a rail park-and-ride site with 1,700 parking spaces.
But with a final decision yet to be made on the route, the campaign for HS2 to reverse its decision and return to the Meadowhall option continued. Rotherham Council noted the potential costs of building a parkway station had not been factored into official HS2 budget costs, despite estimates it would cost between Â£200m and Â£300m.
In July 2017, Mr Grayling confirmed the M18 route as the chosen option – partly on the basis that doing so would better support the future development of parallel ‘Northern Powerhouse Rail’ plans to cut journey times between Sheffield and Leeds city centres to under 30 minutes. But a 59-page report accompanying the announcement explained no decision had been taken in relation to the parkway station issue – a situation which remains the case.
A report last month to the Sheffield City Region (SCR) Combined Authority on developing a local HS2 economic growth strategy listed the delay on a decision as one of the ‘unique challenges’ the area was facing. It said the original HS2 report had not examined “the potential economic or social benefits from a parkway at each location or investigated the environmental impact” – leading to the need for further work. But it added that progress by the DfT “hasn’t been as quick as anticipated”, with HS2 only commissioned in December to carry out an extra study.
But the SCR report did add some benefits of a potential parkway station had been identified. It said: “HS2 estimate that the journey time from London to Sheffield will be reduced from 122 minutes to 85 minutes. Currently, it takes at least 30 minutes by rail to reach Sheffield from the area being considered for a parkway station. An HS2 Parkway station would greatly increase connectivity, reducing the travel time to London to around 74 minutes from the parkway station.”
It added that three million people live within 45 minutes of the potential station, which could reduce local car usage and cut air pollution. SCR bosses have also commissioned their own economic impact assessment into the potential benefits of the parkway station, which is due to be completed by August. But time is rapidly running out for a decision, given a public consultation on the preferred location would be required and the proposed M18 route is scheduled to be put forward to Parliament next year.
While an FoI response by HS2 acknowledged that releasing the completed feasibility study would help with “facilitating public understanding of an important public project”, it ruled the report should be kept secret as further work is being undertaken on the potential station.
It added: “It is in the public interest to protect the integrity of the decision-making process and allow a ‘safe space’ to do this away from public scrutiny. There is a public interest in ensuring that minister and public officials have a safe space to work candidly and freely without being concerned that information could be released in a form where it is potentially misleading.
“The feasibility of a potential South Yorkshire parkway station, and potential options for where this could go, have been discussed in the regional and national press and attract a great deal of interest and debate from action groups, major organisations and members of the public.
“While we are aware that we can contextualise information and highlight any potential inaccuracies, we are not confident that this will be sufficient to correct any misleading impressions or confusion that could be created publicly if this information were released at this time and used in the national debate surrounding HS2.”
John Healey, Labour MP for Wentworth and Dearne, criticised HS2’s secrecy – and says he still hopes the Meadowhall route could be revived. “I’m still strongly behind a route rethink with Meadowhall as South Yorkshire’s mainline station. The worst of all worlds would be the main HS2 line running though South Yorkshire without stopping in South Yorkshire.
"A parkway station is essential to South Yorkshire getting any jobs and business boost, so there’s a powerful public interest in this study and it is plain wrong for HS2 to keep it secret. My big concern is this South Yorkshire station study is taking too long and not taking full account of the economic gains for our whole area.”
Jonathan Pile, from Yorkshire Against HS2, says people deserve to know what is happening. “They should be releasing this and being open with the public. Instead of being honest and saying ‘This is what is possible’, it is all being done in secret.”
He says he is sceptical that the station will ever happen. “It is a significant amount of money and there is no budget for it. It is a dog’s dinner.”
HS2 'remains committed' to exploring parkway station idea
HS2 says it remains committed to looking into the idea of creating a parkway station, along with extending services to Rotherham and Barnsley.
A spokeswoman said: “We are committed to exploring the options for a possible parkway station and service extensions in South Yorkshire.
“The Department for Transport has requested that we undertake further work to understand any potential implications when additional Northern Powerhouse Rail services are considered. This work is under way and will be presented to the Secretary of State for Transport for his consideration.”
A final decision on both issues will be made by Transport Secretary Chris Grayling.