Posted by: davidjmarlow | 05/09/2011

‘Railroad to nowhere’, ‘Fast track to prosperity’…or none of the above…

The Economist turned its attention briefly this week to UK regional economic geography, on the back of an editorial and an article (‘Railroad to Nowhere’) eschewing the case for High Speed Rail (HSR2) from London to ‘the north’. Their economic geography argument conflates four very different assertions – i.e. that this investment’s economic geography benefits will disproportionately accrue to London (and the Greater South East); that, whilst HSR2 might benefit Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, it will damage intervening areas in greater need of regeneration like Stoke and Coventry; that the line doesn’t really go to the ‘north’ at all, running only half of the distance to, say, Edinburgh and Glasgow; and finally that you can deliver more economic geography benefits by spending the estimated £32bn on alternative transport investments.

All of these assertions may be correct, although the article’s evidence supporting them is both slight and contestable. These risks are also potentially manageable through other regional economic geography interventions to couple ‘northern’ core cities more closely with London’s economic success; and areas like Stoke and Coventry more closely with their core city region(s).

My two major observations with HSR2, though, are as follows. Firstly, for the coalition (through Hammond, the Transport Secretary) to claim HSR2 as a “fast track” to prosperity when the earliest it will reach Birmingham is 2026, with Leeds and Manchester to follow in 2032, appears an extraordinary abdication of regional economic policy if they genuinely believe in the investment.

My second point is that, as a regional economic intervention, HSR2 might have quite different qualitative impacts on Birmingham and the West Midlands on the one hand; and the Manchester/Leeds Trans-Pennine Corridor on the other. I have commented recently on long-run concerns over Birmingham’s current performance and future roles and functions in the UK economy (Back to the Future – Birmingham 2010). If HSR2 can reduce London-Birmingham journey times from typically 1¼ – 1½ hours to around 1 hour (and, say, halve the current 2½ hour journey including at least one train change to Heathrow) , the UKs ‘golden triangle’ (London-Oxford-Cambridge) could genuinely become a quadrilateral with Birmingham as the ‘Greater South East’s northern anchor.

Manchester and Leeds are more clearly leading a ‘north’ that will remain quite distinctive and separate from the London mega-region for the foreseeable future. Surely the north’s transport investment priorities are not to reduce travelling time to the capital to that currently ‘enjoyed’ by Birmingham; but to deliver an economic coherence and cohesion that is hugely problematic with the ridiculously slow travel times delivered by ‘Trans-Pennine Express’? To take almost an hour for the 43 miles from Manchester to Leeds; and three hours (normally involving changes) for the 125 miles from Liverpool to Hull hardly befits an economic geography that aspires to be at the forefront of modern European developments.

Acceleration of a London-Birmingham HSR2; together with step-change in connectivity east-west along the Trans-Pennine corridor seems intuitively a sensible strategic debate to be had on ‘rebalancing’ regional economic geographies in England through transport investment. Having such a debate, however, requires both The Economist, and more importantly Government, to take regional economic geography much more seriously than hitherto.


  1. David
    Interesting blog, together with the one on Birmingham’s plan for 2010. I’ve done my share of authoring those kind of “visionary” statements and sometimes thinking “how can I make this distinctive from every other ‘world city / european capital’ vision” and “how will this sound at the end of the plan period”.
    I’ve recently contributed to a discussion in the RTPI Members Linkedin group on the North – south divide, in which I suggested (with tongue planted in cheek, of course) that we should build a high speed rail network between the Northern cities (we might let Brum connect to it as well) that would tunnel under the North Sea to Holland and Germany and ignore London. Unfortunately, I can’t see any UK government being quite that bold, unless Mr Salmond would put up the money.

  2. Thanks for the feedback – and great idea. I love the idea of extending the Trans-pennine under the North Sea. When Ireland recovers as a ‘Celtic Tiger’, we could go under the Irish Sea too!

  3. […] have argued elsewhere, that perhaps the major consequence of HS2 Phase One is to effectively bring Greater Birmingham […]

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