Northern Powerhouse puffs along

Paul Salveson on northern routes and the likelihood of HS2 hitting the buffers

There seems to be renewed efforts to breathe new life into the ‘Northern Powerhouse’, a concept which most Northerners have always treated with a degree of healthy scepticism, given its origins in the halcyon days of the Osborne Era. It’s always been an elusive concept, more about branding than a real programme of regional development. Where it has edged into the realms of reality has been in rail. We have been sold a project which is variously called HS3, Northern Powerhouse Rail and Northern CrossRail. It’s basically about a high-speed rail link from the Mersey to the Humber, linking the cities of Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, York and Hull, with connections heading north to Darlington and Newcastle.

One of Johnson’s first announcements on becoming Prime Minister was to give the go-ahead for that part of ‘Northern Powerhouse Rail’ between Manchester and Leeds. But it’s very early days and engineering a new railway, high-speed or otherwise, between Manchester and Leeds will not be easy and a final route has yet to be identified. Local politics suggest that the route should be via Bradford, which would add massively to the cost and engineering challenges. The fact there’s a relatively modern tunnel sat doing very little (Woodhead) seems to have escaped the attention of the route planners. A route running eastward from Manchester using part-new and part-existing formation via a re-opened Woodhead Tunnel and then veering to the north near Penistone would be far easier and less environmentally damaging. It could potentially connect with the proposed route of HS2 ‘phase 2b’.

And that’s another interesting issue. Johnson has announced a short-term review of HS2, chaired by Doug Oakervee and comprising an advisory panel which is nothing if not diverse (but not in the sense that most Chartist readers imagine, since it’s mostly white and all male). I mean diverse in terms of its views. On the one hand Oakervee was briefly chair of HS2 and presumably thinks it’s generally a good idea. But also involved are (Lord) Tony Berkeley, a Labour peer and intelligent critic of HS2. Other members of the panel veer to being generally pro-high speed rail. Andrew Gilligan, a vocal opponent, is also involved in the background, as Johnson’s transport advisor.

I’ve long been a HS2 sceptic. Not that I’m against high-speed rail as such, just that this scheme is very poorly conceived and over-engineered for our small island. It should be lower speed than planned with more stops serving major towns and cities and better connected to the existing rail network. If we’re going to do it, it should extend to the central belt of Scotland. It’s those journeys from Glasgow and Edinburgh to the North of England and the south where high-speed rail would really demonstrate benefits and lead to modal shift from air to rail.

There is a strong feeling in the North that the region needs not so much better links to the south, but priority given to the regional networks. ‘Northern Powerhouse Rail’ would help, but it’s only part of the answer. It very much assumes that the priority is inter-city journeys (Leeds-Manchester in particular but also Liverpool, York and Newcastle). Talk to most rail travellers and they will say that it’s the middle-distance journeys that are too far for the bus and seriously congested to boot. Journeys to, from and between large centres such as Leeds, Bradford, Halifax, Rochdale, Manchester, Sheffield, Bolton, Preston, Wigan but also the smaller towns linked by these regional networks. ‘Northern Powerhouse Rail’, as currently envisaged, will do little to help the situation. I reckon even with a favourable wind in its sails, a new route from Manchester to Leeds, via Bradford or not, will take at least 15 years (probably more) to build and end up being unaffordable.

An interesting case of schemes which aren’t particularly sexy but are deliverable in a few years, bringing real benefits, is what old railwaymen call ‘The Calder Valley Line’ between Manchester, Rochdale, Halifax, Bradford and Leeds. It links sizeable communities on a route that is slow and uses ancient diesel rolling stock which cannot cope with numbers who want to use the train. Despite a strong local lobby there are no plans to electrify the route.

A final observation about HS2 and the Johnson review. It is highly political. We are told that HS2 is supported by Northern political leaders but this is only partly true: Manchester wants it, Leeds wants it. Most other towns and cities are lukewarm at best, and they have good reason to be. Their priorities, even in rail, lie elsewhere. I suspect the review will find HS2 unaffordable. The proposed routes beyond Birmingham to Sheffield and Leeds, and Manchester, will be kicked into the long grass. Johnson will call an election and say that the money saved will go into expansion of regional networks in the North. Which wouldn’t be a bad result, even if it may be for the wrong reasons.

Paul Salveson

Paul Salveson is a visiting professor in transport & logistics at the University of Huddersfield.