Until recently, I was happy with the argument that South Yorkshire needed HS2 to ‘get better’ by triggering significant economic growth in our region.
A completed HS2 east leg would cut the time required to travel from Sheffield to London by train by half an hour.
This argument was reinforced by claims that the public spending needed to build the HS2 would also bring jobs and opportunities to local people and businesses, and that if Birmingham and Manchester have something, Sheffield must have it too.
These are all compelling and, in some ways, compelling arguments, but sadly, in a post-Covid society, the reality just doesn’t match. Quite simply, as we try to build back better from the pandemic, HS2 has become the wrong answer to the wrong question.
I would be the first to say that we have major public transport problems in South Yorkshire, and this is the result of decades of underinvestment by successive local and national governments. It is something that I have campaigned passionately on since before becoming a Member of Parliament, and it is one of the main issues identified by voters everywhere I go in my constituency.
The problem is, HS2 won’t fix any of them.
Aside from the ever increasing price and multibillion pounds at the moment, I would like to take a look at some of the public transport problems we face in South Yorkshire, and why the HS2 is not the solution.
First, we desperately need better connectivity between major cities and cities in the North. But HS2 will only link Sheffield to London and to the “East Midlands Hub”, which is essentially just a car park halfway between Derby and Nottingham. Under current plans, we won’t even see high speed trains to Birmingham or Leeds. HS2 will not make any improvements to journeys between Sheffield and Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle or Hull. Instead, we should prioritize and speed up the Northern Powerhouse Rail project.
Second, the current route from Sheffield to St Pancras is good enough already and certainly does not need to be replaced by an entirely new line. I take the train every time I go to Westminster, and a slight improvement in the two hour commute each way would have little impact on my commute.
Birmingham and Manchester suffer from a lack of capacity on the route to London, but that is simply not the case for Sheffield. Any improvement in speed and frequency could easily be met by electrifying the existing main line and investing in new electric trains, which would also help create a more environmentally friendly railway.
Third, South Yorkshire has an underdeveloped suburban rail network compared to equivalent urban areas in the UK and overseas. Instead of building a new line to London, we could spend that money better by investing in local rail lines to provide constituencies like mine with regular and reliable rail service. We should also expand our program of rail reopenings, such as the Stocksbridge-Sheffield line, to bring rail connectivity back to towns and villages that have been without it for decades.
Fourth, there is a serious lack of station capacity in central Sheffield, and adding HS2 services to a station with no possibility of expansion will only reduce the already low number of regional and commuter trains that can serve the city.
That is why I am calling for the reopening of Victoria Station as part of my attempt to restore passenger services between Sheffield and Stocksbridge. An additional train station in the city center will increase the capacity of local and suburban services and help connect more communities with Sheffield and beyond.
It is also important to recognize that the pandemic has changed the way we live and work. I’m not saying people will never go back to the office or need to travel on business, and I certainly wouldn’t want to.
But now, with the widespread adoption of virtual meetings, it’s hard to believe that there will be the same level of demand for frequent business travel as before the pandemic, and we should reassess our infrastructure priorities. to reflect this.
In the future, the focus will be much more on local and regional public transport connectivity, and it will take a lot less than thousands of high-speed seats to get to London every day.
Amid a huge increase in our national debt as a result of the pandemic, an ambitious and comprehensive program of railroad upgrades and investments in the North would be a much better way to spend billions of pounds of money. taxpayers. This would always help create new jobs and opportunities for businesses, and local suppliers and factories could be prioritized for purchasing.
Investing in transportation infrastructure is absolutely right, but we need to do it in a way that will deliver the best possible value and the greatest possible benefits.
The best way to revitalize our towns and villages is to connect them to the national rail network and give local people the reliable and convenient public transport links they need.
After all, there’s no point in being able to get from Sheffield to London 30 minutes faster if it still takes almost an hour to get from Penistone to Sheffield.
* Miriam Cates is Conservative MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge.
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