The proposed HS2 scheme in Manchester would see railways built on top of huge concrete stilts

Leaders in the north have warned that the Government has a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make the right decision for Manchester’s HS2 station – but that ministers are on the cusp of wasting it. And as the HS2 Crewe-Manchester Bill is prepared for a second reading in parliament, they have issued an urgent appeal to give the region the hub it needs to thrive over the next 120 years.

Bev Craig, leader of Manchester Council, has stressed that the high speed rail line from London to Manchester, due for completion in 2040, is vital to unclog network capacity, improve connections between the North, West Midlands and London, and boost economic growth. However, she is joined by other leaders, rail experts and industry leaders in her plea that the Manchester station is built in the best way – and that means going underground.

It also means a rethink on the current plan for an overground turn-back station on the northern flank of the existing Piccadilly station, which, say its critics, will:

  • Wipe out the potential for future east-west links by hitting full capacity from day one
  • Swallow up 500,000 sq metres of prime development land
  • Crush the potential for 14,000 new jobs
  • Cut Metrolink lines for years
  • Leave a city centre region severed by viaducts and ugly concrete structures
  • Snub leaders’ carbon neutral, clean air and public transport plans with huge multi-storey car parks for 2,000 cars

Meanwhile, swathes of land will be turned into building sites during construction – causing huge disruption and wasting the potential for a further 2,600 jobs. Passengers will exit the hub into an area currently housing the bins and the back of Greggs.

The current Bill sees HS2 emerge from the ground in Ardwick before travelling on a mile-long viaduct of up to 12 metres in height to reach the new surface station. In order to then connect up to Leeds, it will have to turn back on itself and leave Piccadilly on more viaducts across east Manchester towards Yorkshire.

Bev Craig, leader of Manchester City Council, told the Manchester Evening News : “HS2 for me is a real opportunity not just for Manchester but of the north more broadly. That’s why it has to be done properly.

“It’s currently being proposed that HS2 runs underground until it comes out of the ground on huge concrete stilts and runs above ground into the city centre. No other European city would start by building rail infrastructure on concrete stilts. It’s an outdated notion of urban planning, more reminiscent of the 1970s than what we want to see in 2040.

“You would not see a scheme like this proposed in London, or another city in the south east. So why should Manchester have to deal with something that’s substandard from day one and that doesn’t deliver on the rail opportunities that HS2 gives?”

She added: “I am strongly of the opinion that what’s been planned by the Government at the moment is the wrong plan to maximise the benefit of HS2 to Manchester.”

Coun Craig is among leaders pushing for an underground station, built in consultation with passengers and businesses here. With trains arriving on HS2 from the south and Midlands, passengers could connect via through-platforms for their onward travel across the north. Boosting potential for capacity, it would provide an alternative to car travel, reducing carbon and NO2 emissions.

An underground station, and the demolition of Gateway House, say its proponents, would free up the land above, on the border of Ardwick and the city centre, for homes, businesses, open parks and a welcoming public plaza and boulevard.

With the Government’s plan, trains will have to turn around to leave. One rail insider told the Manchester Evening News : “The design is such that in order to use the platforms effectively, train drivers are going to have to get out of the train and sprint to the opposite end to get away on time. We’re going to need very fit train drivers.”

Crucially, a surface station means the Government’s cut-price Northern Powerhouse Rail – downgraded in Grant Shapps’ Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) in November last year – could not be brought back to life in the future as the hub will hit full capacity from day one.

Coun Craig added: “Manchester has long opposed the cutbacks to Northern Powerhouse Rail. We want that door to be open for the future and the underground station allows us to do that. This allows us not to be full at day one and allows us the opportunity, should a government in future listen to us around our concerns of connectivity from one city to another, to use that platform.”

Graham Stringer, former leader of Manchester City Council and MP for Blackley and Broughton, said the cut-price plan will ‘economically sterilise’ parts of the city, adding: “There is no doubt we are getting a second class link to HS2 in Manchester. By not going into tunnels they are reducing the ability of people travelling east-west. This symbolises the Government’s attitude to the north.”

Analysis by the council shows the surface station will rob the city’s economy of £333m a year by 2050, compared to an underground hub. But the Government has dismissed this optimal choice on the grounds that it will set them back, according to High Speed rail director general Clive Maxwell, £5bn more. Yet no evidence of this costing has been provided – sparking a call from Mayor Andy Burnham for Westminster to share the maths behind the figure.

Meanwhile, a second station at Manchester Airport is as yet unfunded, with HS2 bosses demanding that the region pay its own way. As there are currently no plans to connect the Airport HS2 to Metrolink, passengers will have to come off a high speed train only to board a shuttle bus to take them to the airport. It’s been questioned whether travellers coming into other cities in the country would be expected to do this.

Other concerns around the airport station include the risk of blocking a future tram-train route to the south-west, as well as the design for highways access to Manchester Airport station, particularly at Junction 6 of the M56, which experts say does not take into account future demand for Northern Powerhouse Rail, airport growth and planned development. Soil-lugging HGVs are also a concern, with no plans for materials to be supplied and removed using rail at the hub.

Mike Kane, MP for Wythenshawe and Sale East, described the fact that the Government has plunged cash into Birmingham’s airport station but is refusing to do the same for Manchester as ‘outrageous’, adding: “All that funding happening down south and yet they are scrimping and saving over the best deals in the north of England. There are also major issues with connection to the airport and the orbital tram network. The airport will be at least a mile away.”

Lucy Powell, MP for Manchester Central and Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, said: “The plans for HS2 at Manchester Piccadilly need looking at again. It won’t future-proof the station for further high speed with NPR. The loss of development land and the impact on the area nearby, including the run-in to the station, is not acceptable.”

Mr Burnham called on MPs across the North of England to ‘fight hard’ to change the latest proposal. He said: “While I support HS2 in principle – I always have – patience is wearing thin. I would say to the government that our support can’t be taken for granted because what we have in the bill was very different to what we were first promised.

“There can be no guarantees that we will support this bill, or ask Greater Manchester MPs or indeed the Labour frontbench to support this bill, if there is no change. If it stays exactly as it is, that is a very difficult situation and it’s not what we were promised.”

Greater Manchester’s business community is backing the fight for the best stations for the region – and its economy. Coun Craig added: “They have not even shared the workings on how they get to £5bn for Piccadilly. As a leader of a modern city, for Manchester to do well we need to thrive. I’m not in the territory of pitching Manchester versus London.

“I think it’s a good thing that the country spent £19bn on Crossrail. It shows what’s possible. That’s why it’s more important when other cities are asking for things – not because they are asking for handouts – but because we genuinely think we can contribute to the UK’s economy through proper infrastructure investment.

“Why can’t we have the level of ambition that we have for the capital in other cities in this country? We are not just talking about creating a good economy for Manchester, it’s part of what will see the UK economy succeed. But it can only succeed if it succeeds outside of London.

“This isn’t public services asking for more money, this is businesses, residents – the whole economic plan for the future of the country. We need more competing and thriving cities that can compete across Europe rather than just hedging your bets on the capital city.”

Coun Craig is asking that the Government consider the issues raised by leaders, that costs are worked out in partnership, challenges met through co-operation – and that their concerns are considered seriously. On the £96bn being invested in the region’s rail network, she added: “It’s a lot of money. History has taught us that Government’s don’t invest outside London at this scale very often and that’s why absolutely need to get it right.”

Work by the technical consultants Bechtel, hired by the council in 2019 to look at the potential options for Piccadilly, concludes the Government had tacked on NPR as an ‘add-on’ rather than finding the most sensible solution. Bechtel concluded a six-platform underground ‘box’ solution, aligned at a better angle for services to continue on through to Leeds, would be a more sensible alternative. It also pointed out that this solution was already happening just to the west of London, in Old Oak Common, where a state-of-the-art underground HS2 station is in the process of being built.

Meanwhile, it’s understood that senior figures in the rail industry and the civil engineering community – including those who have worked on HS2 – have been left flabbergasted by the decision to shelve the underground option.

One engineer who has worked on the HS2 project, told the Manchester Evening News : “I cannot imagine how on earth they came up with the £5bn figure. That’s not being spent on Euston in London. Regardless, for the sake of what ultimately is quite a small amount of money, this is a major sacrifice to the capability of this project to release capacity for passengers.”

He added: “There will be no above-ground blight at Old Oak Common. Manchester already has the blight of above-ground viaducts. People in Manchester know what that does, it isolates communities, it’s not a good way to smash up a city. That area will end up going to lower-value homes and it’s people on lower incomes who will suffer. Is that really right?”

There are other issues with the Government’s plan for HS2 at Piccadilly. Multi-storey car parks for 2,000 vehicles fly in the face of Manchester’s Strategic Regeneration Framework and public transport and clean air ambitions, while Chancellor Lane, one of the main road arteries into the city centre from Ardwick, will have to be closed for good and a huge new road interchange built at Pin Mill Brow. Leaders say this will encourage car travel and increase pollution, sever areas of the city – and put at risk the proposed tram train extension to Metrolink. Works will also mean the full closure of the Metrolink Ashton line, with passengers forced on to a replacement bus service for two years.

The chosen plan is also missing an adequate interchange for cycling, bus and coach parking facilities, as well as scope for onward connections. Another rail insider added: “The whole thing is like building a really good motorway with no slip roads. It needs to be looked at holistically, there needs to be thought around how you are going to get people to use the station. You need to be able to get off it. From day one, there’s no resilience if anything goes awry.”

Following the second reading of the Hybrid Bill, all parties have 25 days to submit their petition to Government. These objections are then seen and considered by a Select Committee as the bill goes through parliament.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps has previously denied in the House of Commons that rail routes would be raised on viaducts coming into Piccadilly. In answer to Blackley and Broughton MP Graham Stringer in November, he said HS2 ‘will not be on stilts coming in’.

“Of course, we can only spend the same money once and we need to spend it as wisely as possible,” he added of the Piccadilly plans.

“If we spend £6bn or £7bn building the station underground at Manchester, we will take away from Liverpool, Leeds, Hull or some of the other places that are calling for money.”

“It is also entirely incorrect to claim Government prioritises infrastructure in London and the South East. HS2 has received ten times more funding than London’s Elizabeth Line and is a project the scale of which we have never seen before.”


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