For those of us afflicted by a get-on-with-it culture and a lifestyle built on thrift, there is something rather uncomfortable about HS2. Back in the autumn of 1890, visionary industrialist Sir Edward Watkin presented to Parliament his proposals for an ambitious new main line – 92 miles in length – connecting the coal-rich North Midlands with a terminus at London Marylebone. Engineered for speed, it boasted a generous loading gauge, curves rarely tighter than one mile in radius, a ruling gradient of 1:176 and just a single level crossing.

Like HS2, opposition to Watkin’s plan was organised and vociferous, not least from the companies whose lucrative business he was intent on partly pilfering. But nothing got in his way – neither nature nor vested interests. For two miles, the line burrowed through sandstone to reach a station in the heart of Nottingham and, to placate an enraged MCC, a route was cut-and-covered under the Nursery End of Lords Cricket Ground.

The Great Central’s London Extension still stands out as a truly exceptional railway, delivered with limited mechanical assistance for the 2016 equivalent of around £1.2 billion. And less than eight years after the plans’ ink had dried, mineral traffic started to repay that investment.

Out of town

The Labour government established HS2 Ltd in 2009 and, without one sod being turned, expenditure reached almost £700 million in its first six years. That is – like it or not – the nature of life in the 21st century, costs being launched skywards by the jet engines of regulation, consultation, uncertainty, bickering, froth and newts.

But worthy of even more note than HS2’s current price tag (which exceeds the combined Gross Domestic Product of Latvia and Estonia) are the compromises that £55.7 billion bring with it. In Birmingham, the line stops tantalisingly short of the connective hub at New Street whilst those visiting the East Midlands’ will alight in a residential no-man’s land between Nottingham and Derby. As for Sheffield – England’s fourth most-populous city – serving it will be a station four miles away. Yes, HS2 offers raw speed but with the slightest whiff of EasyJet.

It should of course be recognised that HS2’s Leeds and Manchester legs – known as Phase Two – won’t be nailed down until the autumn, including their respective station sites. There are apparently no dissenters to the East Midlands Hub at Toton, however Sheffield’s political and business leaders have, from the outset, made clear their opposition to a station next to the retail nirvana of Meadowhall Shopping Centre, claiming that it would significantly restrict the potential for growth. Their position has particular resonance in the context of Transport for the North’s objective of radically improving links between city centres.

HS2 Leeds Station Visual-Aerial_151130

HS2 asserts that the difficult engineering task of routing the line through Sheffield – instead of around the eastern side of it – would add about £1 billion to the overall project cost. But a study undertaken for the City Council suggests that more than double that amount would accrue in economic benefit from establishing a central station, not to mention 6,500 additional jobs and significant residential development opportunities. Leigh Bramall, the council’s deputy leader, pointed out that “it is absolutely vital to get it right”, recognising that whatever we build now will be with us forever. He could have said “it is absolutely vital to get it done cheaply”, but chose not to.

U-turn if you want to

Those hoping for a change of heart in Sheffield might take comfort from Sir David Higgins’ interim report on HS2’s station in Leeds which tackled a number of issues familiar to the campaigners in South Yorkshire. Under the original plan, trains there would have terminated on New Lane, south of the River Aire and around 330 metres from the new southern entrance to Leeds’ current station. According to the report, whilst this site “fulfilled HS2’s brief”, there was a danger that it would have been “too detached from the existing station and too isolated from the city centre.”

Several negative impacts were identified:

  • The walking distance of between 5-10 minutes brings difficulties with connectivity and undesirably exposes passengers to the elements (note: also applies in relation to Birmingham New Street)
  • HS2 services are “too isolated” for those starting their journeys in the city centre (note: also applies to Sheffield)
  • The absence of a shared HS2/classic concourse could potentially act as a passenger mindset barrier
  • Regional and local authorities had serious concerns about the proposals, particularly in relation to the quality of the linkage and the City Council’s wider aspirations for a landmark redevelopment on the south side of the River Aire.

Against this background, HS2 Ltd published a report in November 2014, entitled Rebalancing Britain, which recognised the importance of finding a solution that delivered broader connectivity across the Leeds City Region. Four months later, George Osborne launched his Long Term Economic Plan for Yorkshire in which he asked Higgins to reconsider options for Leeds’ new station.

It’s worth noting that, in London and Leeds, HS2 will connect the country’s two biggest financial services centres, as well as helping to create an integrated economic and manufacturing zone of more than ten million people east of the Pennines/Peak District. The Leeds City Region alone contributes 5% of the UK’s annual economic output, amounting to £60 billion. Leeds is already the busiest station in northern England, with passenger numbers expected to increase by 114% over the next 30 years. The Northern Powerhouse and new HS3 trans-Pennine route are likely to fuel that growth. So any redevelopment of Leeds Station had to be built around its likely future role as the region’s connective hub. In other words – just as in Sheffield – getting this wrong would have huge, long-term consequences.

Nature of the challenge

Stakeholder engagement resulted in the emergence of five guiding principles against which all potential options for the new station would be measured. Those principles stipulated that:

  • the classic and HS2 stations should share a common concourse, accessible from the city centre, South Bank and waterfront
  • the new station should become an integrated transport hub with improved car and bus access
  • capacity should be created for a two-thirds increase in services resulting from the Northern Powerhouse and HS3
  • enough through train paths should be provided to enhance both local and Northern Powerhouse services
  • the design should reflect the station’s significance as a local, regional and national landmark.

Non starters

Today’s Leeds Station is built on a hill falling south from the city towards the River Aire. Much of it is supported on vaulted brick arches which now host restaurants, shops and exhibition space. Completed in 2002, the station’s last significant redevelopment provided five new platforms (making 17 in total) with improved passenger access, a glass roof, additional tracks on its western approaches and the transfer of signalling control to York. Only two tracks enter from the east side, accommodated on an 1860s viaduct, more than half-a-mile in length.

Coupled with modern urban sprawl, those Victorian structures act as physical constraints to the HS2 station, whilst the need to keep within the project’s overall Phase Two budget ruled out heavy engineering solutions such as tunnelling or double-decking. Despite this, three options were identified for further development and analysis.

The first suffered from broadly the same shortcomings as the original proposal, using the same site on the south side of the river but with slightly better linkage to the classic station. Stakeholders did not regard it as an improvement.

Differing fundamentally, the second option offered an integrated station with HS2’s tracks approaching from the east into platforms on the southern side of the site. This raised the possibility of connections onto the classic network and through services being established as part of the Northern Powerhouse.

However, with no opportunity to extend the station southwards, the impact on capacity would have been considerable. Analysis indicates that, from the west, 53 hourly services will eventually be needed to meet predicted passenger demand into Leeds, but limited platform space would have capped the number at 44. Alongside those serving HS2, room would only have been available for 11 classic platforms; a future requirement for 22 is conceivable. There was also concern that HS2’s easterly approach would constrain capacity for the growth of regional services, negatively affect adjacent heritage and bring operational disruption during the construction period for as long as eight years.

Leeds Station Visual_Exterior_151130


HS2’s preferred route into Leeds is along the Aire Valley from Woodlesford, following the corridor of the Castleford/Wakefield Kirkgate line. The original plans show the city’s 900-metre long station stopping short of the river, thus creating the disconnect that so concerned the regional leadership. The third option bridged that gap by bridging the river, joining the existing station at right angles.

Whilst this overcomes many of the problems identified with the initial proposal, it is not without its issues. In partnership with the Environment Agency, assessments will need to be carried out to understand the structure’s impact on ongoing flood alleviation schemes, water quality and river habitat improvement work. It also has the potential to sit uncomfortably alongside the city’s adjacent conservation area and canal wharf, now a thriving public space after years of sympathetic redevelopment. The alignment of the station would also lengthen a dingy 100-metre thoroughfare created by Neville Street passing beneath the existing station – a longstanding cause of concern from a personal safety perspective.

The positives though are overwhelming, resulting in a clear consensus emerging around this option. It provides the shared concourse and easy connectivity considered by stakeholders to be vital, as well as establishing better pedestrian access between the city centre and South Bank regeneration area.

The station’s future capacity is not compromised, with land remaining available on its north side for extra platforms catering for growth in Northern Powerhouse services. There is also the opportunity for through trains to/from HS2 via a link with the Castleford/Wakefield Kirkgate line.

Sauce for the goose

“Quite rightly,” Sir David Higgins asserts, “local and civic leaders made clear their view of the limitations they saw in our original proposal, in particular its failure to connect local, regional and HS2 services and to connect into the existing city centre, and the plans for its expansion.” HS2 should be commended for its willingness to engage with those concerns and come up with something that better fits the bill.

You are though left to wonder what’s different about the East Midlands, Birmingham and Sheffield where all the same shortcomings are evident to some extent. Isn’t direct connectivity to existing major rail hubs key to fully exploiting HS2’s potential? Doesn’t the inherent benefit of high speed – faster end-to-end journey times – rely on stations being right at the heart of major commercial and population centres?

The world comes with compromises, but you’d like to think that £55.7 billion would buy you very few of them. The word did not apparently feature in Sir Edward Watkin’s vocabulary, as his now-redundant tunnels under Nottingham demonstrate. With its transformational potential, HS2 could heal some of the economic wounds inflicted on Sheffield by industrial decline. The city will be keen to enjoy the same persuasive success that Leeds has in securing the right station for its future.