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HS2: lifeline or waste of time?

By Carl Jones

No large-scale infrastructure project polarises opinion right now more than HS2.

To some, it’s a long overdue public transport lifeline which connects the Midlands and north of England with London and beyond, regenerating communities and creating precious construction industry jobs.

To others, though, it’s a multi-billion pound vanity project the country can’t afford, doesn’t need, and which will never be used by the vast majority of taxpayers who are funding it.

Crewe, unsurprisingly, tends to fall in the first of these categories. Businesses are licking their lips at the potential inward investment that will come from the town’s status as a gateway to the Northern Powerhouse – hopefully calling a halt to the gradual increase in empty shops and boarded-up premises in some of the scruffier parts of the town.

But there’s much work to be done before then – and no small amount of scepticism over whether the current station can be suitably upgraded in time to welcome more than a dozen trains travelling at 225mph, by the year 2027.

For starters, a mish-mash of various councils and organisations have to agree on the best way forward, and settle on their financial and decision-making influences. It’s no small task.

Driving the HS2 support package is the Constellation Partnership, a boundary-breaking collaboration between two Local Enterprise Partnerships and seven local authorities.

It has strong ministerial backing, and a vision to capitalise on the international investment magnet of high speed rail connectivity which it describes as an ‘unbeatable growth opportunity for investors’.

For its part, Cheshire East Council has warmly welcomed a report that shows support for increased HS2 connectivity and more frequent high-speed train services to and from Crewe.

The Department for Transport held a consultation called ‘Crewe Hub: options for building on existing connectivity’, in the third quarter of last year, and has now published the results. 

It sought views on alternative scenarios for a Crewe hub that would enable additional HS2 connectivity at Crewe and bring other locations in the north on to the HS2 network, including Macclesfield – rather than previous proposals allowing only for two HS2 trains per hour at Crewe linking only to London.

The council says it is clear from the responses that there is strong support for an alternative solution at Crewe with enhanced HS2 connectivity, and a new northern junction allowing HS2 trains to return to the HS2 network north of Crewe – opening up direct high-speed services between Crewe and both Manchester and Birmingham. 

The council, its partners and the Constellation Partnership, have long advocated that the regional transport, economic and regeneration benefits of HS2 to the area and beyond are dependent on securing the right solution for Crewe. 

This means a new hub station capable of handling up to seven HS2 trains per hour, each way, and a new northern junction, allowing Crewe and the region to benefit from direct HS2 services to London, Manchester and Birmingham from Crewe. 

So where does this leave us right now? Well, on the back of the consultation, the Department for Transport has updated its phase 2a scheme from Birmingham to Crewe, which now includes:

Frank Jordan, executive director for place at Cheshire East Council, says: “This is very welcome and yet more positive news which highlights the wider connectivity and economic benefits of having an enhanced Crewe hub for HS2.

“The arrival of HS2 at Crewe by 2027 provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to deliver nationally significant transformational economic growth and regeneration – not only to Crewe but also to the whole of the sub-region.

“An enhanced Crewe hub station would be the catalyst to deliver this growth, jobs and investment opportunities for Crewe and our partner councils and LEPs in the Constellation Partnership as well as the wider Midlands and North Wales regions.

“The provision of 400m platforms at Crewe is welcomed by the council as this will provide the capacity at Crewe to allow for HS2 classic compatible services from London to serve Stoke-on-Trent, Stafford and Macclesfield.

“This is excellent news for Macclesfield and sees the town join the HS2 network. The council will seek to work with the future West Coast Partnership franchisee to look at the opportunities for Macclesfield to be served by HS2 from 2027, six years earlier than phase 2b, as well as options for this service to extend north to Manchester.

“Government has stated that these modifications would not preclude Crewe’s ability to handle five to seven HS2 trains per hour if a new northern junction were delivered and would also allow for growth on the regional links to Crewe, such that they could each accommodate three to four regional services per hour.

“This would support the ambitions of the Constellation Partnership and other partners, including Growth Track 360, for improved regional connectivity to the Crewe hub and would unlock wider growth opportunities.”

He continues: “However, there is still more to do to realise the vision for the Crewe hub and the council and our partners will continue to work with Network Rail and government to look at possible options to deliver a Crewe hub that would support these ambitious plans, not just for Crewe but for the wider region and beyond.

“The council and our partners will continue to make the case to government for the delivery of an enhanced Crewe hub by 2027, capable of serving up to seven HS2 trains per hour and for a new northern junction to be included as part of the phase 2b scheme. 

“It is essential that we secure full commitment from government to the hub and northern junction to positively respond to the feedback to the consultation and realise the vision for Crewe and the Constellation Partnership.  

“As the Government’s response within the report notes: ‘A well-integrated and high-quality Crewe hub is key to ensuring the maximum benefits are realised from the proposals’.”

Enthusiasm for HS2 is by no means dominant across all corners of Cheshire, though. Speak to businesses in places like Warrington, for example, and many are happy with the existing commuter time into London. They would prefer to see east-west rail links improved.

Opponents of HS2 also claim it will run grossly over budget, create havoc during construction and have disastrous environmental consequences.

And with the UK still not free from the age of austerity, rail expert Michael Byng has estimated that HS2 will cost more than £400 million per mile - making it the world's most expensive railway.

The Department for Transport, however, insists that all contingency plans have been costed into both the timescale and the budget.

It maintains that services on phase 2a from the West Midlands to Crewe are expected to begin in 2027 with Phase 2b from Crewe to Manchester, and Birmingham to the East Midlands and Leeds, due to open in 2033.

Transport secretary Chris Grayling says: “Extending HS2 to Crewe is a vital step in achieving the Government’s ambition to build a country that works for everyone.

“By committing to the Crewe consultation, significant benefits brought to Crewe and Stoke-on-Trent by HS2 are unlocked, allowing more people to access high speed, long distance services.”

There is no disputing the fact that the high speed rail infrastructure will create thousands of regional jobs and will have an impact on the local economy.

However the route through Cheshire is due to pass through local farmland and residential areas, and the HS2 management company is locked in emotive and difficult compensation negotiations with those who are in many cases hugely unhappy at the prospect of forced eviction.

Music mogul Pete Waterman – a lifelong railways enthusiast who was invited by the Government to sit on the HS2 Growth Taskforce – is unfazed at the cost of the project.

"HS2 doesn’t actually seem expensive to me. When you look at the enormity of what’s being done; what has to be built," he says.

"And it means 25,000 people will be employed for 10 years. It’s enormous. We’ll actually be short of staff due to the amount which are required.

"This is going to be a complete game changer. It’s such as massive undertaking. And it will leave some people with a job for life, as there’s also the maintenance the line will require once it’s up and running.

"In 30 years nobody will blink an eyelid. It’s like some historical train lines - people would be up in arms were they to be touched now, but at the time they were built people didn’t want them there.”

On the back of the proposed new HS2 Hub Station, Cheshire East Council, using a team led by international masterplanners Arup and property experts CBRE, have prepared a masterplan which covers 920 hectares of prime development land in central Crewe.

The unveiling of the Crewe masterplan follows the launch of a new brand for the Northern Gateway Development Zone - the investment partnership of seven Local Authorities and two Local Enterprise Partnerships across Cheshire and Staffordshire. Crewe is an integral part of the Constellation Partnership.

The Crewe masterplan will lead to 590,000 sq metres of commercial development, 40,000 new jobs and enable the delivery of the right types of houses for residents and the economy, reflecting one of the prime locations in the UK at the heart of the UK and HS2 rail network.

According to Malcolm Smith, director of Arup, Crewe will be a different place in 10 years, reinvigorated by HS2 and the town’s status as the hub of the national rail network.

He says: “Through a confident re-imagination of the assets of Crewe, combined with the potential of the new infrastructure through HS2, Crewe is on the cusp of a generation of change with an outcome of quality of life, employment and investment opportunities that is second to none.

“The masterplan will bring the town and the rail hub together.  Everything will improve. The new station will be characterised by the surrounding landscape and will be a place for both people who use it to travel and those who don't.

“The flow between town centre and rail station will be dramatically improved and new squares and spaces and a broad range of new residential property will attract more people to the town.

“HS2 is clearly a major pump primer and it will make Cheshire even more competitive for commuters, the aspiration for achievement in every sector will be raised and we predict it will help double GVA and triple the number of new jobs in a decade’s time.”

 

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Philip Cox

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