By James Carson
Since the world’s first inter-city rail journey, between Manchester and Liverpool in 1830, the North of England has been trying to capitalise on its transport links to realise its potential as an economic powerhouse.
The latest effort comes from a series of proposals from the cities of Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle, supported by four other Northern cities, Hull, Bradford, Wakefield and York. Their report, One North, argues that transport and infrastructure are key priorities for the North of England, and calls for £15bn of investment to fund a series of projects, including:
- A 125mph trans-Pennine route;
- A fast and frequent intercity rail network joining up the cities, including a faster link to Newcastle and Manchester airports;
- Improving regional rail networks to allow additional capacity and electrification of existing lines.
The One North report also proposes improvements to road networks and access to ports. But it is rail which lies at the heart of its ambitious plans. The proposed trans-Pennine route, modelled on the Channel tunnel, would improve transport networks across the region and cut the journey time between Manchester and Leeds or Sheffield down from 50 minutes to half an hour. This 20-minute reduction, say the report’s authors, would improve labour market efficiency, attract investment and provide stronger links to ports in Hull and Liverpool, amounting to an additional £6.7bn to the region’s economy.
The value of the existing rail network in the north of England has already been quantified by another report, which appeared in July 2014. Published by the Passenger Transport Executive Group (PTEG) representing the six strategic transport bodies in the North of England, the report found that the regional network delivers net economic benefits in terms of improved efficiency, productivity and well-being amounting to £1.6bn per year and supports 20,600 jobs. The report also stressed the benefits of the North of England’s rail network for the wider economy, delivering £3.1bn in national economic output.
Observers have pointed to city regions beyond the UK as models for the North of England. Earlier in the year, The Economist magazine suggested that the North had the potential to be a global metropolis, along the lines of Greater Chicago in the United States. But the article highlighted several factors contributing to the area’s relatively poor performance, notably inadequate transport links. The One North report also looked beyond the UK to underline the North of England’s potential, pointing to Germany’s Rhein-Ruhr and the Netherlands’ Randstad city-regions as “European benchmarks” with superior, interconnected transport systems.
The authors explained that that the One North plan is a response to the challenge set out by David Higgins in his report – HS2 Plus – to integrate the propose HS2 high-speed rail line with the existing rail network. That report argued that both passengers and trade would benefit from the faster journey times, between London, and Leeds and Manchester, predicted for HS2.
But there are still influential voices doubting whether HS2 really can live up to the promises attached to it. Earlier this year, the Institute of Economic Affairs argued that claims about regional transformation risked misleading the public. The authors pointed out that similar promises had been made about the high speed rail line between London St Pancras and East Kent, but reported that, since the introduction of high speed services, east Kent has performed far worse in terms of employment than the rest of the South East and the rest of the UK.
As things stand, HS2 looks likely to be delivered more quickly to the North than first expected. The Higgins report set out a proposal to accelerate construction so that the Crewe section of Phase Two would be completed by 2027, six years earlier than planned, and to build a new integrated hub station at Crewe, arguing that these measures would help to spread the benefits north sooner.
Meanwhile, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has indicated that he’ll respond positively to the One North report, promising announcements in his autumn statement about connectivity and infrastructure in the north of England.
Time will tell whether the economic potential heralded by the North of England’s pioneering role in railway history can be fully realised by the time the Liverpool to Manchester link celebrates its bi-centenary in 2030.
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