The idea: To build a high-speed rail link in the north of England (HS3) prior to the construction of the planned HS2 which will link London to England’s northern cities.
Why it makes sense: The corridor of cities in the north of England is home to 10.7 million people, and accounts for 15% of all jobs in the UK. Yet despite the size of the so-called Northern Powerhouse, the region’s economic potential has been consistently undermined by the absence of trans-regional transport infrastructure.
The Pennine mountain range has long hampered efforts to connect the major cities in the west (Manchester and Liverpool) with those in the east (Sheffield and Leeds) – and this is where HS3 comes in. By constructing a trans-Pennine high-speed rail link (140mph), journey times between Manchester and Leeds (the north’s two biggest cities) would be reduced to just half an hour.
But why should HS3 be prioritised over HS2? The answer lies in the economic imbalance that exists between the north and south of England. Despite containing some of the country’s biggest cities, the Northern Powerhouse has consistently fallen short of realising its economic potential – a reality that stands in stark contrast to situation in uber-connected London. Most experts argue that the north’s economic under-performance can be partially reversed if the region can be physically integrated into a single economic hub.
And finally, the bottom-line: HS3 is estimated to cost £7bn – which is less than half the price of London’s Crossrail project.
Could it happen? Recent history suggests that HS3 won’t be prioritised. Infrastructure spending has long been concentrated in the south east, and even today, the government spends £2731 on transport per head in London compared with £134 per head in the North West. Due to the nature of Britain’s highly-centralised political system, it seems unlikely that northern infrastructure projects will be prioritised at the expense of those from which the capital is set to benefit.
Despite, however, the government’s historical propensity to devote £billions to the south at the perceived expense of the north, the current government has committed itself to redressing the north/south divide. Prioritising a major northern infrastructure project would go a long way toward demonstrating that the government is serious about its commitment to establishing a Northern Powerhouse capable of rivalling the capital.
Likelihood of happening: 30% (wouldn’t bet on it).