Merryn's Blog

Why we need to cancel HS2 now. HS3 is a better bet

Ease of transport is a great driver of economies, says Merryn Somerset Webb. And if we want to get the north going again, we need better rail links.

BBC Breakfast TV just called asking me to come on in the morning. I used to love going on BBC Breakfast. It was good PR for the magazine, it got me up and out early in the day, it usually forced me to think properly about an important issue and finally, I am one of the few people around who actually really likes going on live TV. All good. Not any more.

This time I said no. Why? Because I don't live in London any more and nor does BBC Breakfast. I'm in Edinburgh and it is in Salford. And do you know how long it takes to get from Edinburgh to Salford?

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The fastest train (only one change!) is three hours and 37 minutes (although that only gets you to Salford Crescent rather than the Quays where the BBC actually is). Miss that and you are into two changes and well over four hours.

If I went to Salford from London, it wouldn't be so bad. The trains go every 20 minutes and the journey is two and a half hours. You could pop on a train at eight, sleep in a nice hotel at BBC licence-fee payer expense and be back at your desk by ten-ish the next morning.

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Perhaps you think the journey times make sense, because it is further from Edinburgh to Salford? You are right. But that isn't really an excuse for over an hour of extra train journey: London is 14 miles closer to Salford than Edinburgh the drive takes much the same amount of time. So, what this is really about is rail links.

There are good rail links in place from London to pretty much everywhere. But in the north, the rail links are rubbish. I should, ideally, be able to get out of the East Coast train at, say, Darlington or York and catch a super fast train to zip me over to Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and the like. But I can't.

You might consider my travel problems to be both irrelevant and boring, but the point is that ease of transport can be a great driver of economies and better transport could help the north get going again, something I discussed with Jim O'Neill, now of the City Growth Commission, some months ago.

I'm rarely a great fan of infrastructure projects, but I am fairly convinced it would be a good idea to dump HS2 altogether and rethink HS3 (in a hurry)to make it the fast speed set of links between the northern cities, something O'Neill now suggests in his plan for a northern powerhouse of linked cities*. Then you might see me on the BBC again.

* It isn't just rail we need up here. There is no dual carriage road from Newcastle to Edinburgh (amazing, isn't it?) and the road from Edinburgh to Inverness is only partly dualled, whichmakes it the most dangerous road in the UK.

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