An Irish Sea rail tunnel and High Speed 2 (HS2) network changes are among seven transport improvements tabled by the High Speed Rail Group (HSRG) to strengthen connections between the four countries that make up the UK.
The improvements form the HSRG’s submission to Network Rail chair Sir Peter Hendy’s Union Connectivity Review.
The HSRG proposes a cross-Irish Sea rail tunnel with connecting rail links to Carlisle and Belfast, along with the conversion of the ‘Y’ shaped HS2 network to an ‘X’, which would provide a direct connection between Cardiff and Edinburgh.
Other suggestions include West Coast Main Line upgrades and route electrification and use of the proposed Manchester Airport western rail link.
Due to be published in the summer, the Union Connectivity Review will look at how to boost transport infrastructure throughout Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England via road, rail and air, and across the Irish Sea.
It will examine how such links could be improved to fuel the UK’s recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, improving connections, creating new ones and levelling up access to jobs and opportunities.
HSRG’s seven proposed improvements
Glasgow/Edinburgh – London: Crewe-Glasgow/Edinburgh WCML (north) route upgrade to reduce journey times (post-HS2) to 3h10 and ensure there is sufficient capacity to accommodate anticipated demand that HS2 will bring north of Crewe.
Benefits: Economic boost to tourism and city based growth industries, a significant carbon reduction from air to rail modal shift, more capacity to add freight and reduce long haul HGV movements and Scottish access to HS1 and the European high speed rail network.
Birmingham/Manchester – Glasgow/ Edinburgh: WCML (north) upgrade (as above) to add capacity and reduce journey times.
Benefits: Carbon reduction from modal shift, in addition to huge expansion of the day/half day business catchments in 4/10 of the UK’s biggest city economies.
Cardiff – Birmingham – Newcastle – Edinburgh: Convert ‘Y’ shaped HS2 network to an ‘X’, providing a direct connection between Cardiff and Edinburgh.
Benefits: Provision of direct rail connections currently missing between Cardiff and Sheffield, Leeds, York, Tees Valley and Newcastle. In addition, would improve Gloucester’s rail connectivity and make South Wales a beneficiary of HS2. Also strengthens the case for investment along the northern half of the East Coast Main Line, in both England and Scotland.
Cardiff – Liverpool/Manchester: Upgrade of Newport-Crewe railway to accommodate additional and faster services (including between north/mid-Wales and Cardiff).
Benefits: Cross-border link enhancements, provision of better north-south cross-Wales connections and better connectivity for the economically weak English border counties, especially Herefordshire.
Galashiels/Hawick – Carlisle: The Borders railway southern extension.
Benefits: Useful diversionary route from Carlisle to Edinburgh at times of service disruption and strengthen the Borders region cross-border link in an area of poor roads, no rail service and low productivity.
Manchester Airport – Chester – Bangor – Holyhead: Route electrification and use of the proposed Manchester Airport western rail link to attract passengers and freight to rail and take pressure off key sections of the national motorway.
Benefits: Boost to major businesses on north Wales/English border, enhanced labour market catchment for cluster of industries on the Mersey Dee border area.
Edinburgh/Glasgow and London – Belfast: Provision of a cross-Irish Sea rail tunnel with connecting rail links to Carlisle and Belfast.
Benefits: Binds Northern Ireland closer to Great Britain and helps address challenges in the post-Brexit Northern Ireland economy, as well as increasing connectivity for south west Scotland.
HSRG board member Jim Steer said there is an “urgent need” for both new and improved transport links between the UK’s four nations.
“Cross-border travel markets for rail were growing strongly over the period to 2019. Travel generates economic value, but the opportunity for further economic stimulus from this source will be lost if transport network capacity constraints are not addressed,” he said.
“Building on the transformative impact of HS2, HSRG are calling for these cross-border rail links to be addressed as a matter of urgency, safeguarding the strength of the whole of the UK economy in the years ahead.”
In 2019, prime minister Boris Johnson proposed a widely criticised plan for a bridge across the Irish Sea.
Since then, various options have been put forward for a crossing. In March of last year, Alan Dunlop – the architect who first drew up plans for a crossing – said that a Northern Ireland to Scotland tunnel could cost up to £16bn less than a bridge.
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