Put HS3 at the centre of a new strategy for a High Speed North: that is the central recommendation of the National Infrastructure Commission’s study into transport connectivity in the north.
A higher speed, higher capacity, higher frequency rail network, supported by a better, smarter motorway system is long overdue in the north of England. The journey between Leeds and Manchester sums up the problem. The distance is just 40 miles, but in transport terms the region’s two largest economies are worlds apart. In rush hour it can take more than two hours by car, and close to an hour by train. If we want to make the north a powerhouse—greater than the sum of its parts—then these connections will have to be improved.
Our report looked at connections between east and west, which is surprisingly rare in a country undeniably orientated from north to south. It is not quite the case that all roads lead to London, but there is a clear direction of travel. The M62 apart, there is not a single east-west dual carriageway in the 200 miles between Stoke and Edinburgh.
At the heart of our plan is HS3, a transformed network from Liverpool in the west to Hull in the east, incorporating key northern sections of HS2, upgraded lines, and sections of new track where necessary. Transport for the north, representing the six city-regions of the north, has called for significant improvements between all major cities and hubs. We agree, and work should start right away: urgent action combined with a long-term plan.
So start between Leeds and Manchester, cutting journey times to 40 minutes by 2022 and develop a plan by the end of next year that aims to bring the journey down to just half an hour. At the same time, produce a detailed strategy for the HS3 network from Liverpool in the west to Hull and Newcastle in the east, bringing together key decisions on the northern phase of HS2 and the redevelopment of Manchester’s Piccadilly Station.
From Birmingham New Street to London’s King’s Cross and St Pancras, redeveloping major stations is breathing new life into cities across the country. Birmingham’s city centre has been transformed. In place of the old 1960s concrete monstrosity now sits a rebuilt station concourse with world-class design, five times the space, improved entrances and sunlight flooding in, and a sparkling new shopping centre. Not only does it offer leisure and retail in a once downtrodden part of the city but the proceeds from its sale have helped pay for the station. There is no reason why Manchester Piccadilly cannot ultimately follow the same model and rejuvenate a failing part of its own city centre.
On the roads we need a similar approach: immediate improvements to the key regional artery, the M62, between Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds together with a long-term vision to transform the motorway network including better links to the country’s third-busiest airport, Manchester International.
“The M62 apart, there is not a single east-west duel carriageway in the 200 miles between Stoke and Edinburgh”
The case for action is clear. The north is home to world-leading brands, iconic destinations and more people than London, but it is underperforming. Unemployment is high, wages are low and the region has significant untapped potential. Better transport connectivity alone will not be sufficient to solve these problems, but is necessary. Connecting the major cities of the north with fast, reliable rail services and high-capacity, dependable motorways will give the region every chance to enjoy the benefits of agglomeration—bringing together entrepreneurs, creatives, businesses, and workers—that Londoners take for granted.
If transport investment forms part of a broader strategy that incorporates improvements in education, workforce training, research and innovation, spatial planning and wider infrastructure investment, then the north will have every chance to bridge the productivity gap that has persisted for so long, creating and holding on to more of its top graduates and attracting greater investment that will bring more and better jobs.
Improving our national infrastructure is ultimately about improving our everyday lives, from taking children to school to keeping in touch with friends and family. Infrastructure underpins how we live and work, travel and communicate. When we get it right, as we did so spectacularly with the Olympic Games in 2012, the UK can lead the world. But when we get it wrong, inertia and indecision can frustrate lives, businesses and communities.
The National Infrastructure Commission was established to transform the way we plan and deliver major projects in this country by driving big decisions forward. Putting HS3 at the heart of a committed strategy to revolutionise transport connectivity across the north of England would be a very good start.
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