THE debate about HS2 may be hotting up at the moment, but we have spent far too long talking about the future of our rail network without actually achieving anything.
It is frightening to think that British Rail was experimenting with high-speed trains on existing routes back in the 1970s.
That experimentation demonstrated the limitations of the existing network in terms of quicker journeys; it is now also clear that the East Coast main line has a finite capacity.
There is a choice but if the economy is to grow it is not about HS2 or doing nothing; the choice is about which bit of the transport infrastructure we invest in.
Do we want more or bigger motorways?
Do we want to all move to aviation as our main mode of travel?
Or do we want to increase our rail capacity?
If we opt for more rail capacity, we cannot do it on our current network. Existing North-South rail routes are projected to be full to capacity within the next 10 years – we must therefore look at a new rail network.
HS2 would free-up capacity on existing rail lines, bringing the opportunity to reshape the whole network, and will create a step-change in capacity to support economic growth in Leeds and the city region.
More space on our trains is needed to connect people to jobs and businesses to the workforce.
Leeds experienced the fastest jobs growth between 2001 and 2008 of all the eight Core Cities in England; it is no coincidence that over the same period rail passenger growth in Leeds was over 90 per cent, also the highest among the Core Cities.
In addition, for Leeds the new HS2 station in the city centre could be a huge catalyst for development and regeneration in the south bank area and will make the city centre the country’s biggest single transport hub outside London.
I am tired of London-based politicians who are happy to see billions spent on the capital’s infrastructure without similar investment in the rest of the country.
Rebalancing the economy and reshaping national geography requires more investment in cities outside London.
For too long now, the North-South divide has been ignored in national debate, despite the fact that Treasury figures last year showed that spending on transport in London has risen to £644 per head compared with £251 for Yorkshire and Humberside.
We cannot think that there is a “do nothing” option here; there is no escaping the fact that we have to find a solution to our infrastructure problem.
HS2 is the most logical and least damaging option, certainly compared to motorway expansion, a move to aviation or the upgrading of our existing rail network.
This said, we have to ensure that the route chosen is 100 per cent justifiable. We cannot upset communities unnecessarily.
The route has to be the ‘Y’ route – it must come to Leeds rather than stopping at Birmingham or going only to Manchester – but we have to make sure the route is absolutely defensible.
Although HS2 Ltd are the ultimate decision-makers, Leeds City Council are doing – and will continue to do – all we can to influence the route so that it is right for our local communities.
To me, this is all about vision. For 40 years we have been debating this issue and it is high time we have the belief to follow this through. My one desire would be, however, to get on with the scheme more quickly – we need this new infrastructure and we need it now.
* Richard Lewis is a Labour councillor and the executive member for development and the economy on Leeds Council.