Forget HS3, “Transport for the North” was the real meat of yesterday’s announcement

Like this, only faster: the current Transpennine express line. Image: Ingy The Wingy, taken from Flickr, under creative commons.

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.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.