Boris Johnson should prioritise a new Transpennine railway line before the Manchester section of HS2, the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, has said.
Following media reports that the prime minister is set to approve the London to Birmingham phase of HS2, Burnham called on Johnson to simultaneously build Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR), a new line connecting Liverpool to Leeds.
In a noticeable change of tack, Burnham said he wants NPR to take priority over the western spur of HS2, which on the current timetable would not see high-speed trains running from Birmingham to Manchester until the 2040s.
The eastern HS2 spur, from Birmingham to Leeds, need not be affected, he said.
A number of new Tory MPs in the so-called “red wall” areas of the north of England and Midlands oppose HS2, saying they would rather see NPR built. “Getting from Manchester to Leeds, getting from Warrington to Liverpool, is a priority for people living in the north of England and I suspect that priority is far ahead of getting down to London,” Andy Carter, the new MP for Warrington South, told the BBC last month.
Burnham said work on NPR had “stalled” because all of the engineers were preoccupied with HS2. He suggested the HS2 team currently working on the two northern spurs (phase 2b) should be reassigned to work on NPR within Transport for the North (TfN), a statutory body which advises government on the north of England’s transport needs.
They should then build NPR along with “a new, modern, underground station at Manchester Piccadilly” which could accept through trains going from north to south as well as east to west, Burnham said. Only when that is finished, “in the 2030s”, should government continue building the Manchester leg of HS2, digging south from the north to Birmingham, he added.
The current cost estimate for NPR is £39bn, but that would be likely to rise significantly if it were built before HS2’s Manchester-Birmingham leg — not least because the current NPR designs use 80km of HS2 track, including an expensive tunnel from Manchester Airport to Manchester Piccadilly.
A report by consultants Bechtel, commissioned by Manchester city council, suggested Burnham’s vision of Piccadilly would be “broadly comparable” to the estimated £1bn-1.3bn earmarked by HS2 for Old Oak Common station, the new “super hub” planned for west London.
Last year Jake Berry, the northern powerhouse minister, said he would rather build a new central station in Bradford instead. Since then, the government has suggested NPR should bypass Bradford and go via Huddersfield, according to Burnham. He and other northern leaders oppose that idea on the grounds that Huddersfield already has reasonable rail links, whereas the much bigger Bradford has two dead-end stations.
Judith Blake, the leader of Leeds city council, said: “We need HS2 (both legs) fully integrated with NPR – including a new line through Bradford. We would very much welcome a proposal to put HS2b and NPR into one project so we can fully integrate and plan delivery in the most effective way.”
Meanwhile, environmental protests against the high-speed rail link continue to grow, with six camps currently set up along the route.
Demonstrators celebrated a victory after they halted the planned destruction of woodland along the HS2 route at the Colne Valley regional park on Saturday. The park in Hillingdon, on the western edge of London, is home to over 2,400 species of flora and fauna including otters, water voles and tawny owls.
HS2 had been granted permission to close the main road running through part of the Colne Valley site this weekend in order to carry out the tree felling. Dozens of HS2 contractors arrived at the site on Saturday morning armed with chainsaws and strimmers. But similar numbers of protesters from Extinction Rebelllion, the Green party and other groups locked themselves on to trees and jumped into hedgerows, preventing any work being carried out. By the end of Saturday the HS2 operatives abandoned their plans for the weekend tree cutting.
A HS2 Ltd spokesman said it was delivering an unprecedented programme of tree planting and habitat creation alongside the new railway and added: “Protests such as this are costly to the taxpayer, cause unnecessary delays and are a threat to the safety of the public and our workers.”