Short-sighted plans for an HS2 station in Manchester threaten a decade of chaos in the city center with vast swathes of land becoming a building site.
As the HS2 Crewe-Manchester Bill is today prepared for a second reading in parliament, the Manchester Evening News demands the government does not botch one of the most important transport projects ever to be built in the north of England – by doing it on the cheap.
This is ministers ‘one shot to build an underground station at Piccadilly which will future-proof passengers’ desperate need for capacity, reliability and resilience on the rail network. If they do not make this choice then our city center faces being scarred by a concrete jungle of viaducts and ugly structures on valuable land.
READ MORE: Ugly concrete stilts could soon tower over Manchester, kill 14,000 jobs and wreck city’s ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ chance
The HS2 line from London to Manchester, via Birmingham, Crewe and Manchester Airport, will mean a new station on the northern flank of Piccadilly train station.
This was widely expected to be an underground station. But November’s Integrated Rail Plan stated the surface station as the ‘preferred option’, while in April, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the underground option had been ruled out because it would ‘take a lot of money out of other parts of the network’.
But this is short-sighted and stifling to long-term ambition, say leaders here. The cut-price overground station will see trains emerge from the ground in Ardwick before traveling on a mile-long viaduct of up to 12 meters in height to reach the new surface station.
London’s HS2 will get a ‘super hub’ – the new Old Oak Common in West London – an 850-meter station with 14 platforms, six underground high-speed ones and eight conventional ones above ground, four of which will serve Crossrail. There will be no unsightly viaducts here; twin tunnels will take high speed trains east to the southern terminus at Euston and west to the outskirts of London.
Manchester leaders, while welcoming the investment and rail capacity that HS2. brings, say this cheaper option will mean building on 500,000sq meters of prime development land, severing east Manchester communities, cutting off Metrolink lines, and blighting the city center by turning swathes of land into a building site. They believe the loss of land for development alone could cost 14,000 jobs.
Crucially, a turn-back surface station, rather than an underground through-hub, means the Government’s cut-price Northern Powerhouse Rail – downgraded in Grant Shapps’ Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) in November last year – could not be brought back to life in the future as the hub will hit full capacity from day one.
Current plans for a surface station mean passengers will exit the hub into an area currently housing the bins and the back of Greggs. Its design, say experts, also hinders onward journeys via other public transport. Chancellor Lane – one of the main road arteries into the city center from Ardwick – would be closed for good and a huge new road interchange built at Pin Mill Brow. Experts say this will increase car travel, pollution and sever yet more areas of the city, while jeopardizing the proposed tram-train extension. Meanwhile, the full closure of the Ashton line will force tram passengers on to a replacement bus service for two years.
So far pleas for a rethink have been ignored. After the bill is read, all parties have 25 days to submit their petition to the Government. These objections are then considered by a Select Committee which has not yet been appointed.
Today the Manchester Evening News calls on the government – and those MPs who are appointed to the committee – to look closely at the plans and listen to rail experts and local leaders whose experience and knowledge of the area is crucial.
HS2 will unclog network capacity, improve connections between the North, West Midlands and London, and boost economic growth. The £ 96bn being spent on rail in the north of England is long overdue, and welcome. But it has to be done right.
Passengers and businesses in the north have been waiting for years for the timetables, capacity and services they deserve and this could finally help the region to meet its potential.
An underground station, and the demolition of Gateway House, would free up the land above, on the border of Ardwick and the city center, for homes, businesses, open parks and a welcoming public plaza and boulevard.
As Bev Craig, leader of Manchester City Council, has said: “No other European city would start by building rail infrastructure on concrete stilts. It’s an outdated notion of urban planning, more reminiscent of the 1970s than what we want to see in 2040. You would not see a scheme like this proposed in London, or another city in the south east. So why should Manchester have to deal with something that’s substandard from day one and that does not deliver on the rail opportunities that HS2 provides? ”
Mayor Andy Burnham, meanwhile, has said that patience is ‘wearing thin’, adding: “I would say to the government that our support can not be taken for granted because what we have in the Bill was very different to what we were first promised. ”
Analysis by the council shows the surface station will rob the region’s economy of £ 333m a year by 2050, compared to an underground hub. The Government has dismissed the underground option on the basis that it will cost, according to High Speed rail director general Clive Maxwell, £ 5bn more. Yet no evidence of this costing has been provided.
Meanwhile, the proposed HS2 station at Manchester Airport remains unpaid for, with Greater Manchester expected to foot the bill. It is a hub which is so far away from the airport that passengers will have to exit a state-of-the art train only to catch a shuttle bus the rest of the way.
Recent decades are littered with broken promises when it comes to transport infrastructure of the north of England.
In the summer of 2019, the Manchester Evening News ran the Power up the North campaign. It sought to shift decision-making to regions outside London and included an appeal for Northern Powerhouse Rail to be delivered in full. Boris Johnson, who has since called ‘leveling up’ the ‘defining mission’ of his government, backed our campaign days after he took office.
Three years ago next month Mr Johnson stood at Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry and declared: “I want to be the PM who does with Northern Powerhouse Rail what we did with Crossrail in London.”
London’s £ 19bn Crossrail opened last month, £ 4bn over budget. The Elizabeth line is welcome; it’s needed to solve London’s own east-west connection problem. But the North’s remedy for its own east-west conundrum was to be the £ 36bn Northern Powerhouse Rail, a new 40-mile high speed line connecting Manchester and Leeds via Bradford.
After being run through Grant Shapp’s Transport department, it’s now £ 18bn cheaper, consisting of a new line from Warrington to Marsden, tacked on to the existing TransPennine line, which is finally being upgraded – four years after George Obsorne had promised its completion.
Meanwhile, the Eastern leg of HS2 to Leeds was axed and the Manchester Evening News has lost track of how many times we’ve asked visiting politicians when platforms 15 and 16 will be built at Piccadilly and Oxford Road station will be expanded, along with other measures to help ease the bottleneck that is the Castlefield Corridor.
It’s this bottleneck that led to the timetable crisis of 2018, with many of those services cut as a result yet to be restored. In March, Mr Shapps announced an £ 84m ‘short-term’ fix to fund longer platforms, upgraded trackside equipment and bigger depots in the North West, while the £ 145m Hope Valley Scheme to improve sections of the railway between Manchester and Sheffield – originally due for completion in 2018 – will start later this month.
Back to the capital, and the £ 1.6bn Old Oak Common will be a new 850-meter ‘super-hub’ for HS2 in West London. Set to be the ‘best connected and largest new railway station ever built in the UK’, it will house no fewer than 14 platforms, with six high-speed ones underground and eight conventional ones above ground, four of which will serve Crossrail.
The economic case to build a station like this in Manchester, to benefit the whole of the north, is undeniable. And yet here we are again. Desperately searching for substance in the ‘leveling up’ promises which were the ‘defining mission’ of this Government.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s not just the station planned for Manchester Piccadilly that is turn-back and surface level. Sadly, so too are many of the promises made by the Government to the North when it comes to its vital transport infrastructure.
Leaders here refuse to give up hope that Boris Johnson can still make good on those promises.
And the Manchester Evening News backs their call on behalf of not just the people of Greater Manchester now but for generations to come.
Please, do not mess it up.
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