The Government’s HS2 plans were opened to public consultation last week and broadly welcomed by business and political leaders in the north of England.
The economic benefits are clear – in my own city of Manchester alone, up to 30,000 station-supported jobs are expected to be created and the additional rail capacity will make room for freight and ease the gridlock on our roads.
As the driver of Greater Manchester’s economy, the effects of this investment in Manchester will be spread across the city region. Furthermore, a dedicated link at Crewe will spread the benefits across Cheshire and significantly reduce journey times to and from Liverpool. The link to the West Coast Main Lane north of Crewe will bring benefits to Wigan, Preston and beyond.
Ed Miliband’s proposal this week to create 33,000 apprenticeships to work on the construction of the line could help to reduce the chronically high youth unemployment in the North West, with 120,000 youngsters currently out of work in the region.
What got me really excited is the potential link from HS2 to HS1 to create the possibility of direct trains from Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham to Paris, Brussels and beyond.
Of course this isn’t a new idea. Direct Regional Eurostar trains from Manchester to Paris were built and tested in 1997, but journey times and the rise of low cost airlines meant that it wasn’t a feasible option at that time. Those specially built trains now service domestic passengers in France. However, evidence suggests that rail is competitive with air travel for journey times of up to 4 hours. HS2 brings Birmingham within 3 hours of continental Europe and my fellow Mancunians could hop on a train at Piccadilly and be sipping coffee in a Parisian cafe three and a half hours later.
With the rising costs of budget airlines and regular complaints about poor service, competitively priced direct trains from Birmingham or Manchester to cities like Paris could shift large numbers from air to rail travel. Projections carried out by HS2 of potential passenger numbers on direct trains from Birmingham to the continent suggest around 5,000 people a day could opt for rail over short haul air travel. Direct trains from Manchester to Paris could have the potential to attract a significant number of the almost half a million passengers who flew from Manchester Airport to the city of love in 2010.
Linking to the wider European high speed network at Lille could link English towns and cities north of London to dozens of cities on the continent’s vast and growing high speed rail network for the first time.
The Government should amend its plans and create a direct link between HS2 and HS1 rather than using part of the existing North London Line as proposed to increase capacity and speed up journey times. Furthermore a link to Heathrow on the HS2 line linking to Manchester Airport and to HS1 could reduce the need both for internal domestic flights from Manchester to London and also for short haul flights from Heathrow to Europe, reducing carbon emissions and freeing up capacity at both airports.