Henri Murison: Why it is in the North’s best interests to back HS2 and not let Tory leadership contest derail high-speed rail

THE North has had a great history, and the Stockton to Darlington railway saw the first public passenger services. Then, Liverpool and Manchester followed soon after and led to a railway building boom.

HS2 is integral to the construction of a high-speed rail line across the North, argues Henri Murison.

But since the Victorians, the North has not seen new railways being built as the South has. For example, the Channel Tunnel rail link linking London and Kent with Europe. So, after HS1, we had to question what project would come next.

The answer was HS2, a project supported cross-party by those in government for many years across both major parties. However it has had plenty of critics of late, including Boris Johnson who prefers in its place a bridge to Northern Ireland. No, not a confidence and supply arrangement, although they also cost in the billions, but an actual bridge.

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Henri Murison is director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership.

In addition, we then had HS3 – and new lines for the North. As much of this network would rely on existing line in places from as far as Newcastle and to Hull, Northern Powerhouse Rail is its name now.

The case presented here is not a beauty parade of three projects, or even the two yet to be built. I reject the need to compare and say which we need more because no one asked Londoners to choose between Crossrail, a project which will be transformative to commuters across the capital and beyond when opened, or HS1, the opening up of the continent of Europe.

HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail are the new railway network we have been waiting for since the Victorians. The Chancellor this week has signalled his commitment to Northern Powerhouse Rail – the need to create a North, which acts as one economy, with rail links which match the region’s ambitions and aspirations.

Leeds is one of the cities that will benefit from HS2 and HS3.

It will see a ‘turn up and go’ service between Leeds and Manchester every 10 minutes, each taking under half an hour, making commuting quick and simple. Bradford, the UK’s youngest city, will be transformed, taking under 10 minutes to get to Leeds. Significant improvements in frequency and time savings between Sheffield and both Leeds and Manchester, as well as improved links to Doncaster and Hull as well as north to Darlington and Newcastle.

Connectivity is critical to creating a Northern Powerhouse capable of taking on – and leading the world – in digital or in the health sciences. If you talk to the businesses that are going to create the jobs for children growing up in the North today, they’re dependent on infrastructure and connectivity. At the moment our transport system, whether it is North-South or East-West, simply isn’t up to the job.

So if we reject, we have a choice to make between the North’s long awaited two new railway projects which will integrate together and to the rest of the existing network.

Sheffield is another city that will benefit from HS2.

Let us compare the case of doing HS2 and the conventional rail upgrades to even the West Coast Main Line, as commuters and inter-city travellers compete for the limited space in and out of even just Euston every day.

HS2 is not primarily about getting to London more quickly. It will unlock capacity for local services, the same way Northern Powerhouse Rail does for freight and local passengers across the Pennines, using the soon-to-be electrified line from Huddersfield into Leeds which, at the moment, is the primary route for those in Leeds to get to Manchester.

Crucially however, on a very practical level, Northern Powerhouse Rail and its £39bn cost is based on maximising the parts of new line being built for HS2, such as the track from Leeds to York which is upgraded for HS2 to use or the new tunnel from Manchester Piccadilly to Manchester Airport to get on to Liverpool. So then, if you did cancel it, then a large proportion of the HS2 budget would still be required for the Northern Powerhouse Rail scheme to work. This is as well as the chunk we would need for upgrading the West Coast Main Line, so a ball park of £15bn based on last time it was done.

What you are left with is no money for the Boris bridge to Northern Ireland, or anything much else, once you compare options. Money, to be returned to the Treasury from a cancellation of HS2, cannot be the pre-requisite for getting the £120bn we need for Northern specific transport schemes, including Northern Powerhouse Rail, up to 2050.

However HS2, Northern Powerhouse Rail and devolved transport budgets for cities through devolution are affordable by committing to spend 1.2 per cent of GDP on this transport investment as set out by the National Infrastructure Commission last year – a level which still remains government policy with cross-party consensus.

There’s also the question of jobs and skills. HS2, delivered together with Northern Powerhouse Rail, will be transformational, playing to the strengths of the North as world-leading in wider infrastructure, including the specialist new capability like the new Institute being built by Leeds University.

So, with the clock now ticking on Theresa May’s departure from Number 10, the resulting leadership election has the potential to derail one of the most crucial projects for unlocking the Northern Powerhouse.

Leadership elections can be chaotic and disparate and encourage people to go to the lowest common denominator, however, a betrayal of the HS2 project could leave the Tories having to answer difficult question on why its potential to rebalance the economy has been lost.

If the next Prime Minister wants to win a General Election, and not just the praise of Tory activists who happen to live on the first phase of the HS2 route to Birmingham and oppose it, and also believes in the Northern Powerhouse, then we need infrastructure that delivers for the North. This means delivering both HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail.

Henri Murison is director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership.