HS2 the high-speed rail from London to Manchester will be nice, but it won't do much for the North

A one-hour journey time to the North could put Stockport in the capital's commuter belt. Whatever happened to investing in neglected Northern towns?
  • @Simon_Kelner

We are used to the spiralling cost of rail journeys, but £1000 for a trip from London to Manchester might be stretching it a little. That's the contribution every household in Britain must make towards the construction of a new high-speed rail line (HS2) linking the capital and some of our great regional cities (Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, to be precise).

In 20 years' time, you'll be able to leave Euston and, by the time it takes to queue for an all-day breakfast roll and a coffee at the buffet bar and then get back to your seat, you'll be pulling into Manchester Piccadilly and hearing the announcement reminding you to take all your belongings with you.

I don't know where I'll be in the year 2032, but I hope I'll be around to take advantage of a one hour, eight minute journey time between London and Manchester. More than that, I hope I'll be around to appreciate not having to stand up all the way there. Because, as someone who uses the West Coast line from time to time, my problem with it is less to do with speed, more about capacity. The present service - run by Virgin, given a stay of execution after the absurd auction of last year - is regular and quick, but is very often overcrowded to the point of extreme discomfort. The fact that the train arriving in two decades' time promises to be swift and spacious is little consolation.

I am also not sure I agree with the Government's assertion that HS2 will usher a new age of prosperity for the regions, and make our economy less weighted towards London and the South. It will be "an engine of growth that will drive regional regeneration," said David Cameron yesterday. Really? Doesn't he know that the new line goes in both directions, and it also takes just over an hour to get from Manchester to London. In other words, that puts Wilmslow and Stockport, to pick two random examples, in the capital's commuter belt. And given the state of the London property market - a report yesterday said that house prices in the most sought-after areas have risen by more than 50 per cent in the past three years - that's not such a ridiculous idea.

The debate about the new rail link betrays a London-centric attitude and a misunderstanding about economic conditions in the North. How will this project, and the money spent on it, help towns like Blackburn or Bradford, or even Liverpool? This is where Britain's transformation from a nation that made things into one that pushes money around is most keenly felt, and where George Osborne's austerity measures promise years of depression.

What is needed more, I would argue, is an east-west, rather than a north-south, link. Investment here would connect the post-industrial towns of the north with the region's more prosperous cities. It still takes more than three hours to travel by train from Liverpool to Hull, a distance of only 126 miles, and everything in between is equally poorly served. This, in my book, is a scandal, and will probably remain so while they are carving through middle England with this fancy pants £32bn project.