It’s been a controversial talking point for the best part of a decade, but plans for the new High Speed 2 railway between London and Birmingham have now advanced further, with the routes to Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds revealed by the government today.
Trains travelling at 225 mph would link the five cities by 2033, with the project costing a total of £33bn. However, the latest portion of the proposals does not include plans to link the network directly to Heathrow Airport.
Obviously keen to scoop up some credit, George Osborne said that the network would be ‘the engine for growth in the north and the midlands of this country.’ An intentional ‘engine’ pun there, Osborne?
Critics have pointed out that the route could drain talent from the north by bringing more distant cities within the commuter belt of London, and that the physical appearance of the railway will mar great tracts of countryside. There are about 70 different campaign groups that are opposed to the project.
But Osborne said: ‘As a country you have got to make those long-term choices. If our predecessors hadn’t decided to build the railways in the Victorian times, or the motorways in the middle part of the 20th Century, then we wouldn’t have those things today.’ We can’t fault your rhetoric there, Chancellor.
So what will be the improvement in actual journey times? The Department for Transport said that ‘phase two’ of the railway would halve journey times between Birmingham and Manchester (to around 40 minutes), and London to Manchester will be reduced from two hours and eight minutes, to one hour and eight minutes. As an historical point, HS2 will be the first major railway line to be built north of London for about 120 years.
But despite objections from the constituencies lining the route - many of them Tory - there is enthusiasm from the cities that will be linked to the railway. Leeds City Council leader Keith Wakefield, for example, said: ‘We have lobbied long and hard for a high-speed rail link to Leeds and this is excellent news.
‘It will strengthen Leeds’ position as the northern transport hub and unlock major investment, jobs opportunities and connectivity to the rest of the country.’
Still, today’s proposals are just that – proposals. The route plan for phase two will not be finalised until the end of 2014, so there is still time for campaigning. The proposed spur to Heathrow has been suspended, basically until the government has decided what the hell it wants to do about its aviation policy.
No doubt the project will end up costing £50bn instead of the predicted £33bn, but given that the UK has fewer miles of high speed rail track than Belgium, Saudi Arabia or Morocco, perhaps it’s time we joined the club…