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Midlands left in waiting room as northern cities in for £7bn rail boost

Midlands left in waiting room as northern cities in for £7bn rail boost

🕔27.Oct 2014

Journey times from Manchester to Leeds could be cut from 48 to 26 minutes after the Government embraced plans for a £7 billion HS3 high speed rail track across the north of England.

David Cameron and George Osborne are in Leeds today to unveil the latest chapter of the Chancellor’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ vision, in this case dramatic improvement in trans-Pennine connectivity.

Mr Osborne declared the project would be “as important for the north of England as Crossrail is for London” and announced he was to set up Transport for the North, a new body to coordinate the strategy.

The east-west rail improvement is backed by HS2 boss Sir David Higgins, who produced a report for the Government on the new line’s viability.

Sir David said better rail links in northern England were “desirable” and “possible” after being asked to look at ways of maximising the benefits of HS2.

Both the prime minister and the chancellor were effusive in their support for a bold northern strategy ahead of the General Election.

Mr Cameron said: “Improving connectivity and reducing journey times between our great northern cities is a crucial part of our long term economic plan for the north to boost businesses and create more jobs and security for hardworking people. That’s why we are backing HS3.”

Mr Osborne said: “The vision I set out earlier this year of the Northern Powerhouse we could build is rapidly taking shape. I asked Sir David Higgins to look at how we deliver the better transport links across the north that would make a reality of that powerhouse.”

Meanwhile, the great cities of the Midlands can only look on enviously as their northern counterparts stand to benefit yet again from Government largesse.

For the Midlands has its own east-west rail scheme every bit as exciting and desirable as the Northern Powerhouse. It is called Midlands Connect and sets out in great detail the economic case for improving the appalling rail links between Birmingham, Coventry, Leicester, Derby and Nottingham.

The strategy, drawn up by the West Midlands Integrated Transport Authority and backed by east and west Midlands LEPs, envisages express rail links between Birmingham Airport and East Midlands Airport as well as vastly improved commuter services across the east-west Midlands rail network.

Journey times at the moment are among the slowest anywhere in the country, and it is that lack of connectivity that is hampering regeneration and job creation.

Average journey times by train between Birmingham and Leicester are one hour and 19 minutes for a 45-mile trip which can be completed in about 40minutes by car. Travelling by train from Birmingham to Nottingham takes one hour and 43 minutes, and from Birmingham to Hereford two hours and 22 minutes.

Travelling from Birmingham to Worcester by car along the M5 should take no more than 25 minutes outside of peak hours. By train, the journey takes 70 minutes.

The prospect of Midlands Connect receiving the same level of Government support as Northern Powerhouse almost certainly depends on the progress the east and west Midlands councils make in forming Combined Authorities, which Ministers have said must be in place if city regions are to benefit from devolution.

Birmingham, Solihull and the Black Country may be edging towards integration by Christmas, but the future is uncertain for Coventry and Warwickshire and Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire.

Yet in the north of England, where the Greater Manchester, Merseyside, North-east and South Yorkshire combined authorities are working together, Government money is beginning to flow freely.

David Sparks, the leader of Dudley Council and chairman of the Local Government Association, told a recent ThinkBirmingham event that the northern combined authorities were already beginning to think of themselves as representing the whole of the north of England in their dealings with the Government.

The Government says it will now produce a strategy looking at options, costs and a delivery timetable for HS3 across the Pennines and an interim report will be produced in March.

The new route would be in addition to the north-of-Birmingham phase two of HS2 which will see a Y-shaped route going from Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds.

Sir David Higgins said improvements to rail services across the Pennines between Leeds and Manchester could involve a doubling of trains per hour, with either a new high-speed track and tunnel under the Pennines, or an upgrade to the existing line.

This, suggested Sir David, should be the first step in a “clear strategy to address poor connectivity across the north from Liverpool to Hull, as well as to Sheffield and Newcastle.”

He told BBC Breakfast: “If you look at the two huge cities – Leeds and Manchester – less than half a per cent of the people in each city travel to the other city to work.

“So in this competitive world access to skilled people is crucial for cities to compete and a good, reliable, fast rail service will improve that.”

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