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Comment | The curious case of High Speed 3

Manchester Picadilly station

High Speed 3 has suddenly become chancellor George Osborne’s darling. But why?

Infrastructure professionals and supporters of that elusive thing the Northern Powerhouse rejoiced as one this week as chancellor George Osborne announced £60M of funding to further develop High Speed 3 in his 2016 Budget.

But what is actually going on here? Does anyone actually know what High Speed 3 is? There certainly isn’t a defined route – not one that is protected at any rate. And there isn’t even a business case – or not one that could withstand the scrutiny of the Treasury Green Book. Yes, there is a capacity problem on the trans-Pennine rail line – but this is a line that runs with two car trains. Buying some rolling stock would probably solve the problem at a fraction of the cost.

So why has High Speed 3 this week become the chancellor’s darling? Simple – he needed something northern in his Budget.

The simple reality is that Britain – not London, but Britain – needs Crossrail 2. It needs it every bit as much as Crossrail 1, and it needs it because London is the economic heartbeat of the country and it is under chronic strain. Yes, peak hour trains into Manchester are congested, but statistics that congestion is just not on the same level as the congestion into London. It just isn’t.

The Department for Transport’s most recent statistical release (albeit last September and based on data from Autumn 2014) shows that overall peak crowding was higher in London than in other cities, with 4.1% of passengers in excess of capacity in London compared to 1.4% across the other 10 cities it measures. In total 139,000 passengers were standing at trains’ busiest points on arrival into London in the morning peak; that’s more than four times the number (31,000) of people arriving into Manchester in the morning peak altogether.

So announcing £80M of funding to progress plans for Crossrail 2 was a no-brainer. But what Osborne couldn’t do was give money to London without giving a similar amount to the North. It’s all politics.

So what of the National Infrastructure Commission – the beast that was supposed to take the politics out of infrastructure planning? Well, conveniently enough its first – Osborne directed – task was to report, separately, on the viability of Crossrail 2 and High Speed 3 in time for his Budget. Dressed up in worthy-sounding reports about transport infrastructure needs in London (Transport for a world city) and the north (High Speed North), the commission has handed Osborne some “independent” documentation to promote both schemes. Because of the way they were commissioned, no attempt at comparison between the schemes is made, and certainly no effort has been made to prioritise them – the whole point of the commission.

Maybe that is to come, once the ICE-led Needs Assessment work has been completed. Evidence gathering is now underway for a report to be published in the autumn that promises to set out what Britain is likely to need from its infrastructure up to 2050. It will build on some of the Commission’s early work; draw on some of the recommendations around boosting connectivity nationally via rail and road upgrades – including interesting proposals for a trans-Pennine road tunnel. But crucially, boost that work with some real, robust, independent thinking.

Maybe then the commission will gain some teeth and genuine independence. But right now it is looking a tad too close to the Treasury and the chancellor for its own good, and all those infrastructure professionals who have jumped on its findings are looking just a little too partisan.

Yes, we all want infrastructure to be high on the political agenda. But we have to maintain balance. We have to secure investment in the right things. Potholed roads and delayed commuter rail journeys are the most complained-about things in our world. But mending potholed local roads and patching up signalling offers no ribbons to cut. So that kind of work is the work that gets cut, when what it really, desperately needs is significant investment.

We need to sell that kind of work as sexy. That’s what the commission needs to do; that’s what we all need to do.

Readers' comments (3)

  • This is a curious article, seeming to suggest that overcrowding is the only problem on the railways which is worthy of spending money on, which is a very London-centric view. Comparing Crossrail 2 and HS3 is like comparing chalk and cheese.

    Clearly, there is a need for Crossrail 2 to address the chronic congestion in London. It's been identified as a requirement for London's transport since at least 1989.

    The rationale for HS3 is different in that it addresses the poor connectivity between cities. Northern England has major city regions which have relatively poor transport links between them. It takes nearly an hour to travel the 40 miles by rail between Leeds and Manchester. It's a frustratingly slow crawl. Imagine Reading to London (a similar distance) taking as long. Despite this, the services are increasingly congested - having been a commuter in both London and the North I can attest that the density is much the same, although clearly the volume of traffic is different. (The article is somewhat misleading regarding the length of trains on the Transpennine route. Many peak hour trains are 6 carriages, not 2!) Longer trains have already been announced as part of the new franchise. While this may help with capacity in the next few years, it doesn't solve the long term problem of poor connectivity. Whether the solution involves upgrading the existing route or building an entirely new one is the subject of ongoing study, but whichever is eventually chosen, there is no doubt that it is necessary, and not a sop to keep Northerners on side.

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  • Of course, the carefully selected statistics offering the need for more investment in London and the South East conveniently forgets that Cross Rail 1 hasn't yet been delivered and the wide ranging benefits that this should give.

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  • Whilst there is no "official" speed threshold for a railway to be termed "High Speed", it is generally accepted today that for any new railway, 250km/h (approx. 155mph) is considered to be the High Speed threshold. Given the distances involved between Liverpool/ Manchester/ Leeds such speeds do not seem necessary. A top speed of 125mph to 140mph would probably be quite adequate. Unless speeds of 250km/h really are being proposed, perhaps it would an good idea to find a more suitable name than "HS3" for the new fast east-west railway across the North. How about "Northern Express"? Not being directly compared to HS2 (as the current HS3 name inevitably does) might help the "Northern Express" project.

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