Government advisors suggest downgrading HS2 Midlands-Yorkshire link

The government must dramatically increase investment in the railways if it wants to meet its levelling up commitments to the north and midlands, its infrastructure advisors have said.

In a new report the National Infrastructure Commission also suggested the leg of HS2 going through the east midlands could be suspended and piecemeal upgrades carried out instead to deliver some benefits more quickly.

“What we’re saying is that if you want to make some significant improvements to your levelling up agenda, then you really do need to invest in these regional links which give you the benefit in the short term, and to make the most of that you need to increase the budget in the first place as 25 per cent or if you’re feeling generous 50 per cent, Sir John Armitt, the commission’s chair told reporters on Tuesday morning.

“But if you stick to the base budget then you’re putting restrictions on what you can do.”

The commission says the early phases of HS2 phase from London to Crewe and Manchester should go ahead in all circumstances, but cast more doubt on future phases linking to the East Midlands, Sheffield, and Leeds.

Instead of the new high-speed line from Birmingham to Leeds, existing lines would be electrified and the existing East Midlands Parkway station would be used as an interchange station instead of a planned new high-speed hub at Toton.

The report also backs calls for a new route linking the belt of northern cities across the Pennines like Liverpool, Manchester, and Leeds – though it says some of this length could be done with upgrades rather than new lines if the government wants to keep costs low.

The proposal to downgrade the east midlands section was met with strong opposition from local leaders and MPs.

“This report is an insult to the people of the East Midlands, whose interests have once again been cast aside by Westminster; this time at the hands of the National Infrastructure Commission,” said Lilian Greenwood, MP for Nottingham South and former chair of the Transport Select Committee.

“Downgrading the Eastern Leg of HS2, as suggested in this report, is completely unacceptable, and will condemn a generation, not only to a second class railway, but to a second class future – one blighted by economic inequality and a lack of social mobility.”

Maria Machancoses, director of Midlands Connect, the region’s joint transport body, said the proposals were “very concerning”, adding that they would “short-change millions of people across the Midlands and undermine our efforts to deliver a transport network fit for the 21st Century”.

Midlands Connect has dee developed details plans around the eastern leg, whose cancellation would also slow down journeys between Leeds and London, Leeds and South Yorkshire, and Leeds and Birmingham.

The government has previously promised to electrify the midland mainline anyway, but the project was suspended by Chris Grayling due to overrunning costs.

As well as improving journey times, HS2 was designed to release more rail capacity onto local lines by separating express services from slow trains.

Darren Caplan, chief executive of the Rail Industry Association, welcomed the Commission’s proposals for a “consistent programme of rail investment” but warned that it was vital that HS2, TransPennine Route Upgrade, Northern Powerhouse Rail and Midlands Engine Rail were delivered “in full”.

Defending the approach, Sir John said: “There’s no reason why government should not continue to pay for the development of the eastern leg schemes and bring those forward into the rail programme into the future.

“I see no reason why it shouldn’t get built, the difficulty is that if you proceed with it very quickly you’re still not going to see it until 2040, but with the regional approach you can get more benefits in to the regions very quickly.”

He added: “I would argue that you can do a lot for connectivity, a lot for the economies, of both the midlands and the north with these regional links separately than what you could do with the high speed links.”

The government has said it will deliver HS2 in full but said it is looking at how the eastern leg can be better linked with Northern Powerhouse Rail, the planned route connecting northern cities. The government was told to proceed in full with HS2 in a previous review commissioned by Boris Johnson.

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