Manchester to Leeds high speed route good in principle, but worthy of expansion.
So, two cheers for George Osborne’s announcement, ironically made in one of three Northern English museums slated for closure last June. Firstly, I agree with the case for faster speeds on Trans-Pennine railway service. Secondly, this could mean some newer trains over electrified lines as per the Northern Hub, scheduled for completion by 2018.
Thirdly, one grouse of is this: why Manchester and Leeds, and these two cities only? I can understand a need for greater capacity between the two points, having experienced sardine style conditions from Stalybridge to Manchester Piccadilly or Victoria myself.
Fair point, but there’s also another problem: capacity is limited. Between Stalybridge and Huddersfield, there are six trains per hour – twelve per hour counting journeys in the opposite direction. Amid existing timetables, track paths have to be negotiated for goods trains, the odd rail charter, even tamping trains and light engine movements. Which is why the all stations service from Manchester Victoria to Huddersfield is once hourly north of Stalybridge.
The Manchester to Leeds plan should have been part of the HS2 project. The proposed routes to Leeds and Manchester, from London, comprise of a ‘Y’ shape at the West Midlands. Operationally, the present HS2 doesn’t allow for one issue: a broken down train at either Crewe or Sheffield Meadowhall. Unless the rolling stock is ‘classic compatible’ (able to use standard non-HS lines), there could be one Hell of an empty stock movement. Having a Leeds – Manchester section as part of HS2 could have been a Godsend.
Just serving Leeds and Manchester, and hailing it as HS3 reinforces the Northern Powerhouses of the two cities. There is more to the North of England besides the oft-mentioned two: what about Liverpool, Preston, Sheffield, Kingston-upon-Hull, Sunderland, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Bradford and Chester?
What wasn’t clear in his speech was reference to the route: will it be an upgraded already upgraded section of the electrified Trans-Pennine service? Would there be new track across the Pennines (pretty unlikely)? Would it be paid for by closing ticket offices?
Some ideas for the Manchester – Leeds route could have been put in place much earlier if it weren’t for Beeching and successive governments less sympathetic to rail. The Heaton Lodge to Diggle section could be re-quadrupled, but for some structural work between Slaithwaite and Huddersfield made in the late 1970s. Platform alignments at Slaithwaite and Marsden would have to be remodelled to allow for this operation.
North of Heaton Lodge, scope for reopening and mothballing the Leeds New Line could have allowed for a possible HS2.5/HS3 route – possibly with tilting trains for the undulating nature of that route. And a possible HS2.5/HS3 route to Bradford Interchange with a chord at Cleckheaton Spen for the former Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway line to Low Moor, thence to Bradford Interchange.
Thankfully, the most easterly bores of Standedge tunnel are still intact, used as service tunnels for Network Rail road vehicles. Things start to get difficult as soon as we head to Butterhouse Tunnel, which has been filled in. Reopening Butterhouse Tunnel and the LNW’s line via Micklehurst would have alleviated present traffic issues encountered by Transpennine Express services. This would have left the present line via Mossley to stopping services and goods trains.
Therefore, reopening the line today would involve restoring Butterhouse, Royal George and Stalybridge New tunnels. It would also mean the reinstatement of the viaduct over Greenfield [Chew Valley Road], bridges on Egmont Street [Bottom Mossley] and Sandhills [Stalybridge]. South of Stalybridge, re-quadrupling the Guide Bridge – Ashburys line. Had we left the structures in place, the cost would have been fewer, but HM Government has never been known for its foresight on rail infrastructure.
A Vote Catcher?
Much as I welcome the announcement, I can smell a slight hint of vote catching. The areas concerned (apart from the mainly Conservative/Liberal Colne Valley constituency or the often marginal Oldham East and Saddleworth seat) have strong Labour seats. There is also a wealth of undergraduates between Leeds and Manchester who often use the trains, so viability shouldn’t be too much of a problem where the allotting of new rolling stock is concerned.
Another part of me sees this as a rehash of Northern Hub policies, an expansion of policies started by Labour in 2009 which they are trying to take full credit. That instead of a HS1/HS2 project in the sense of new lines and peed off Home Counties residents fearful of house prices falling.
HS3 (or HS2.5 if you prefer) should be part of a wider network. A network which includes a wider spread of Northern Powerhouses. A network which has the ability of taking Liverpudlians to Hull in 90 minutes, as well as Mancunians to Leeds in 30 minutes. To me, his HS3 plans reek of an infill project for HS2 that should have been part of the HS2 project anyway.
For the North of England, fast trains to Leeds barely scratch the surface for its rail passengers. We need to find a creditable – brand new – alternative to the hideous Pacer units for a start, foisted upon us by Gideon’s precursors 30 years ago.
S.V., 23 June 2014.