One North can rival London

Julie Carrier WSP head of rail

England’s northern cities have come up with an inspired vision of how HS2 and better cross country transport links will create an economy to rival the capital’s says WSP’s Julie Carrier.

Reading the preface to the One North report, a key transport plan developed by England’s northern cities, I got excited about the possibilities this investment could bring, not just for the North, but to the UK economy. The vision unveiled last month is transformational and ambitious, describing how the North, with its 15 million population - larger than London, New York and Tokyo - will become a destination of choice for investors, helping rebalance and grow the national economy in the decades ahead. And this transformation will be delivered by a better transport system.

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"The One North report compares the North to various city clusters around the world, notably the Rhein-Ruhn region in Germany where the GDP per capita is now growing faster than the capital city Berlin following investment in transport connectivity."

However, a seed of doubt began to niggle.  Is this really just a political ploy to win the votes of those 15 million constituents? After all, the South has benefitted from significant infrastructure investment in the last decade, so isn’t it time to move the campaign bus up the M1? Or is this all about One North vs HS2 in a tense tussle for transport funding?

It’s easy to be confused, even for an industry professional like me. What’s clear is that publication of the One North report marks a significant change in our approach to transport systems and our view of the economy. I’m often asked about my view of HS2, and as a regular commuter, for me it can’t come soon enough. I’ve seen a shift in the last six months from ‘if’ the scheme will go ahead to ‘when’.

Sir David Higgins’ review of the proposals allowed us to see the high speed rail link from a different perspective; this was no longer purely about high speed train travel, but connectivity, agglomeration and bringing opportunities outside of London.  His report suggested that we should consider building from the North early as that was where the most significant benefits would be realised – this isn’t about commuters travelling to London faster, quite the contrary. The report also highlighted the benefits of an extension to Crewe, providing better facilities for freight.

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However, it remained a predominantly North-South link connecting London with Birmingham then separately Leeds and Manchester. As a regular commuter between these last two great cities for over two years, I can sympathise with the cynical reaction to such massive investment in an additional North-South railway: 2 hours Leeds/Manchester to London classic network (200 miles), vs 1 hour Leeds to Manchester classic network (40 miles). You do the maths. The M62 isn’t a much more attractive option with the head of the Highways Agency openly admitting that predicted demand is likely to mean 40mph becomes the new norm (if only on the M62…)

The response from the North has been, in my opinion, inspired. The cities of Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle and Sheffield have collaborated to agree a new strategic approach to transport infrastructure, which at its heart is about maximising the benefits of HS2 for our region. The proposal considers all modes of transport, linking ports, airports, and highways with heavy and light rail systems, and recommends a series of improvements costing £15bn, or put another way £1,000 investment per head of population in the North.

This is a 20 year vision for our transport network that will transcend political whim and provide a legacy infrastructure system that we can be proud of. Improved capacity, reliability and speed are at the heart of the proposal for an effective rail network.  The recent CBI report also supported this view – concluding that Yorkshire’s airports could be held back by poor road and rail connections – further compounding the need to invest sooner rather than later to prevent another capacity crunch in the future.   

The One North report compares the North to various city clusters around the world, notably the Rhein-Ruhn region in Germany where the GDP per capita is now growing faster than the capital city Berlin following investment in transport connectivity. It also quotes some pretty compelling commercial reasons for the investment; reducing the train journey time between Leeds and Manchester by 20 minutes would be worth £6.7bn across the whole of the North of England.

The economic benefits are actually very simple-better connectivity equates to improved journey time reliability, better travel quality and shorter journeys. This in turn:

■      Stimulates business investment

■      Achieves agglomeration

■      Provides a larger resource pool to fish in

■      Increases competitiveness with access to new markets

■      Reduces trading costs through more efficient logistics

And these factors strengthen the comparative advantages of the North as a place to do business.

For me, this isn’t about North vs South or HS2 vs HS3. This is about providing a credible alternative economic centre to our capital city, which by the way I love. I just prefer to live in Yorkshire. London is expanding rapidly, and if we look 20 or even 50 years hence, where will that expansion stop? What inspires me about the One North proposal is that it provides a long term vision, and a taste of the possibilities; “a digital infrastructure that offers consumers and businesses full real-time information systems, improved ticketing options, provides greater network resilience and reliability, more capacity for growth and much faster connections between key centres”. We can use this to tempt the next generation of engineers in to the profession, attracting creative minds with the allure of challenge and longevity.

Connecting our northern cities by providing comfortable and efficient transport links that meet the needs of the region and provide an unparalleled platform for economic growth, seems like a no brainer to me. But then I would say that, I’m a railway engineer.

Julie Carrier is UK head of rail at WSP