Yesterday, Britain's trainspotters got very excited when transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin officially announced that the government would begin planning for “HS3”. If it goes ahead, this upgraded link across the Pennines would halve journey times between Manchester and Leeds to just 24 minutes. It would, McLoughlin humbly claimed, “transform the economic geography of the country”.
This is all very lovely – but it’s also a long way off. All the government has actually committed itself to do is “develop proposals”: at this stage, it's not even clear if HS3 would be a new line, or a set of upgrades to existing ones.
Even if it does happen, the new line won't actually be that HS (around 125mph, compared to the 225mph for the less misleadingly named High Speed 2 project). Manchester and Leeds are only around 40 miles apart. That makes a mockery of the existing 50 minute journey time, but it also renders really high speed trains a bit pointless. By the time they'd finished accelerating, it'd be time to slow down again.
In other words, the “high speed” bit of HS3 is basically just a marketing exercise.
The real purpose of the new line is to bind the northern cities together into a single economic region. That should make it easier for people to access jobs, and for companies to access skills, and thus do lovely things to the region's economy. In other words, HS3 isn't really an intercity line on the model of HS2 at all, but a commuter route.
Image taken from “Fast Track To Growth”, courtesy of the Centre for Cities.
Viewed from that perspective, the more important bit of yesterday's announcement might have been the promise to create “Transport for the North” (TfN): a new body bringing together representatives of the five big northern cities to plan a region-wide transport network.
TfN's name is obviously intended to parallel that of Transport for London, the body responsible for most of London’s public transport. Actually, though, a better model might be the (this is a mouthful) Verkehrsverbund Rhein-Ruhr (VRR), which oversees public transport in the Cologne/Dusseldorf/Dortmund conurbation of western Germany.
VRR is responsible for 50 railway lines, of which 15 are classed as “express”. It also looks after 45 street car lines; 19 light rail ones; two people movers; 6 trolleybuses; nearly 1,000 bus routes; and the Wuppertal suspended railway, which is brilliant because it looks like this:
Image: Mbdortmund at Wikimedia Commons.
In all, VRR brings together provided by 39 different companies in half a dozen cities. The network is so big and so complex that there isn't a single map which even shows the whole thing. This is just the rail network:
The Rhine-Ruhr, as a thriving industrial region incorporating several neighbouring cities, is often optimistically cited as a model for England's north. But if TfN is to play the same role as VRR, it'd need to do more than just plan a few new lines: it'd need to have some influence over the Northern Rail franchise, and Merseyrail, and Metrolink, and Sheffield Supertram, and umpteen regional bus networks, too.
At the moment, though, all McLoughlin is promising is that TfN will “allow the north to speak with one voice on the big decisions”. If HS3 is really going to transform Britain's economic geography, he may need to go further.