MPs call for train revolution to begin in North

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THE Government should consider starting to build its high-speed rail network in the North and pushing southwards according to an influential committee of MPs who conclude there is a “good case” for the controversial £32bn scheme.

Work should be carried out “as a priority” to investigate whether starting building in the North would help rebalance the economy, according to the Transport Select Committee.

An artist's impression of the high speed train

An artist's impression of the high speed train

The committee rejects claims that the project is unaffordable but says the Government must “firmly commit” to branches to Leeds and Manchester before starting work on the proposed first phase, between London and Birmingham, to address concerns it would never get beyond the Midlands. It also says there is “merit” in legislating for the entire scheme at the same time.

A link from Birmingham to the Midland Mainline should also be considered so that Yorkshire businesses and passengers start to benefit from faster journeys as soon as the first phase opens in 2026 rather than waiting decades.

Amid ferocious debate over the merits of the scheme, MPs admit it is difficult to assess whether the project – which would cut up to 50 minutes from journey times between Yorkshire and London – will ease the North-South divide, and say finance from Government will be needed if Yorkshire is to benefit economically.

Ministers are also warned that the 225mph high-speed network – known as High Speed Two (HS2) – must not come at the expense of other transport systems. The committee says it would be “unacceptable and counterproductive” if spending was cut from other rail schemes to pay for it.

Although today’s report is largely positive about HS2, opponents who insist it will be a white elephant have seized on its criticism of the environmental claims and concerns that productivity gains may have been inflated to insist the case for the project was now “in tatters”. One MP on the committee – Wycombe’s Steve Baker – even proposed concluding the project was “not commercially viable and it contains huge financial risk”, but was voted down.

Although MPs suggest building the network in phases – with London to Birmingham first – their call to assess benefits from starting in the North could add pressure to build in one go.

The committee warns that immediate economic benefits may only be enjoyed in areas immediately around stations – likely to be Leeds city centre and somewhere in South Yorkshire – without improved local and regional transport networks and quality economic development planning, and say an “urgent strategic appraisal” of the branches to Leeds and Manchester is called for, including deciding where stations should be located, before the first phase is approved.

James Lewis, chairman of West Yorkshire’s transport authority Metro, said: “To unlock its huge forecast economic benefits, HS2 needs to link its key northern destinations of Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester with Birmingham and London at the earliest opportunity, which would mean starting construction at both ends as soon as possible.”

Dan Large, spokesman for the Campaign for High Speed Rail, said: “This is a victory for jobs in the North and the Midlands, and the moment the naysayers were proven wrong.”

But Jerry Marshall, chairman of Action Groups Against High Speed Two (AGAHST), said the case for HS2 is “in tatters”.

High-Speed Rail:

The Key Findings

“Good case” for high-speed rail network;

£32bn scheme is affordable but investment in other rail must not be sacrificed;

Firm commitment needed to Y network when seeking approval for London to Birmingham line;

Link from first phase to Midland Mainline should be considered to give Yorkshire benefits from 2026;

Case for building from North to South to be examined;

Plans to operate 18 trains per hour are “questionable”;

Environmental claims “do not stand up to scrutiny”;

Government should show respect and not call high-speed opponents Nimbys.