Working together to extract maximum benefits from HS2

The HS2 route in South Yorkshire and beyond.
The HS2 route in South Yorkshire and beyond.

The Department for Transport announcements last month were eagerly awaited by everyone with an interest in HS2, supporters and opponents alike.

First we learned of the contracts awarded for Phase 1, then later in the day came the confirmation of the Phase 2b route options and nowhere was this latter announcement more eagerly awaited than in Sheffield and its neighbouring communities within the wider South Yorkshire region – particularly Rotherham and Doncaster.

The new route for HS2 has been confirmed.

The new route for HS2 has been confirmed.

To re-cap on earlier reports the DfT originally favoured a route more or less following the motorway corridor through the Sheffield area with an elevated station adjacent to the shopping mall at Meadowhall, alongside the M1 Tinsley Viaduct. This station was intended to serve the whole South Yorkshire region.

The proposals were favoured by Rotherham, Doncaster and Barnsley interests, not least because Meadowhall is already an established regional hub with good rail, road and bus connections.

It should be pointed out that this is no run-of-the-mill edge-of-town shopping centre – it was very well conceived from the outset in relation to public transport provision as well as road access.

To put things in perspective Metro Centre Gateshead rail station attracts 350,000 passengers a year. Greenhithe in Kent – that was expensively rebuilt to serve Bluewater – copes with 1.2m. By contrast Meadowhall handles a thumping 2.2m rail passengers annually and has a bus station and tram terminus completely integrated with heavy rail to boot. It is both an interchange and a destination in its own right.

But this will be a challenge if previous experience with local politics is anything to go by’

It was therefore unsurprising the DfT made Meadowhall its original choice for the South Yorkshire HS2 stop, but the idea was always vigorously opposed by Sheffield City Council and a coalition of groups with a vested interest in promoting the city centre.

They backed up their argument by citing HS2’s own figures on employment generation that seemed to suggest a city centre station would create more jobs overall but neighbouring communities remained sceptical.

Part of the problem is that Sheffield has never been able to make up its mind about Meadowhall. Some see it is as a beacon of success, a shining gateway to the city region, while others – including it seems most of the key decision makers in Sheffield politics – view it as a cuckoo in the nest draining the lifeblood out of the city centre.

A great deal of time was therefore devoted to persuading the DfT to divert the main line through central Sheffield via a reopened Victoria Station, an eccentric scheme that would have seen HS2 hurtling off through Last of the Summer Wine Country vaguely in the direction of Huddersfield. Integration options with classic rail were awkward in the extreme, involving a lengthy hike to ‘Victoria East’ platforms on the MML somewhere near the site of the former Attercliffe Road Station.

HS2 project

HS2 project

The plans had ‘non-starter’ stamped all over them and were a complete waste of time and money – except that is that they gave Sir David Higgins the opportunity to present a completely new and substantially cheaper scenario for the region that has proved very controversial, but has now been approved by the DfT.

In a nutshell the plan is now that the HS2 main line will roughly follow the M18/A1M corridor, passing several miles to the East of Sheffield. Sheffield will still be connected to HS2, but will be served by classic compatible trains running via a spur to Chesterfield then by existing lines through Sheffield Midland before potentially re-joining the HS2 main line to Leeds somewhere near Crofton in West Yorkshire.

This is being touted as a triumph in Sheffield but it is not quite what the city had originally argued for – meanwhile the neighbouring towns are outraged that the main line will be running through their back yard without them realising any direct benefits from the new infrastructure. The fact that some new houses will have to be demolished has added to the furore although to be fair to the DfT the Meadowhall route would have affected more homes.

However given that all this is all now a fait accompli the time has come to put the previous arguments to one side and for communities to work together in order to extract the maximum benefits from HS2 now that the route has been decided – but this will be a challenge if previous experience with South Yorkshire politics is anything to go by.

'Stop HS2' banner is displayed outside a home near to the Shimmer housing development which will be part demolished to make way for the HS2 high-speed rail link on July 17, 2017 in Mexborough,

'Stop HS2' banner is displayed outside a home near to the Shimmer housing development which will be part demolished to make way for the HS2 high-speed rail link on July 17, 2017 in Mexborough,

Co-operation between the various local authorities in South Yorkshire has long existed in relation to planning and transport although the relationship has not always been an easy one.

In the early 1970s Sheffield and Rotherham jointly funded a Land Use Transportation Study that produced an impressive final report in 1976 predicting developments such as the Supertram nearly two decades before implementation.

The report also looked at the electrification of local rail lines between Sheffield and Rotherham with new branches to Stocksbridge and Mosborough and a city centre underground loop for Sheffield. Although this particular scheme was not in the report’s final recommendations it was later promoted with considerable enthusiasm by Sheffield City Council.

Formal discussions actually got under way between British Rail and the South Yorkshire PTE to further the idea but fizzled out due to a lack of interest on the part of the PTE which was then effectively under the control of the former South Yorkshire County Council. Barnsley-based SYCC was determined on the one hand to avoid a Sheffield-centric view of the region and on the other became more and more preoccupied – some would say obsessed – with its cheap fares policy for public transport and an ultimate aspiration of free travel for all.

However laudable this policy objective may have been in principle, in practice it led to an acrimonious and damaging dispute with central government and severe restrictions on capital investment for transport projects. Sheffield therefore lost out on a bold scheme that had it been realised may have transformed the local economy.

Fast forward by 40 odd years and again the region is in danger of being left behind because the local authorities are pulling in different directions, but this time the position is reversed. Sheffield will see gleaming HS2 compatibles gliding in and out of the Midland Station. The rest of South Yorkshire will look on enviously as the main HS2 service races through its communities with seemingly no benefit to local residents.

Perhaps the most obvious course of action for the Rotherham and Doncaster MPs, councillors and businesses would be to lobby for a parkway-style stop on the HS2 main line somewhere along the M18/A1M corridor. This is a superficially attractive idea but would be a mistake and almost certainly become an expensive and empty political gesture with a sparse service sparsely patronised.

Quite apart from the limited destination options that such a station would offer it would inevitably be built on a greenfield site and it is very difficult to see how it could be integrated with other local and regional transport networks. Fortunately there is a much more sensible solution to spreading the benefits of HS2 across the region which would be to establish an interchange on a brownfield site at Rotherham Parkgate that could potentially be served by HS2 compatibles on the Sheffield Loop, fast regional and Cross Country services, local trains, tram-trains and buses.

This is close to the point where the MML and the ex-GC line from Rotherham Central converge at Aldwarke Junction. As it happens SYPTE is already working on a proposal for a £15m station at Parkgate that is planned to cater for 250,000 passengers a year – but these plans should now be completely overhauled to take on board the new opportunities offered by HS2. The new interchange could easily generate a passenger flow ten or more times that number.

Of course there is one proviso to all this, and that is for Sheffield to accept that HS2 compatibles will make a stop at Parkgate en route to Leeds.

As the benefits to the wider region would greatly outweigh the slight increase in overall journey times between Sheffield and Leeds it is to be hoped that common sense will prevail over parochial thinking.

Perhaps the region’s decision makers will take up the challenge. About 30 minutes before the official announcement on Phase 2b was released Rotherham MP Sarah Champion tweeted: “Furious!! Just got email from Grayling confirming HS2 will follow the M18 route which means S Yorkshire won’t get a proper stop #disgusting”.

My reply “Make sure the Sheffield Loop service stops at Parkgate – but I share your frustration, Meadowhall option was better for S Yorks as a region” earned a more or less instant like from this prominent South Yorkshire politician.

The key to maximising the benefit of HS2 is for the regions it will serve to be “HS2 Ready” by the time it gets there.

The communities of South Yorkshire, if they work together positively and collaborate imaginatively, can ensure that this happens for them.

n This article first appeared in RAIL magazine issue 833, see for more information.