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Why The North Of England Isn't Getting An Entirely New High-Speed Rail Line

While London is getting the entirely new Crossrail network, the North will see upgrades and improvements that could take decades to arrive.

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If you've read the news today you'll have seen that George Osborne has announced his backing for a new rail line called High Speed 3 that will connect Leeds and Manchester.

Peter Byrne / PA Wire/Press Association Images

Ahead of Wednesday's Budget, the chancellor said he will commit funding to two major railway projects to help get people around the country: Crossrail 2 in London and High Speed 3. The latter is a key part of the chancellor's Northern Powerhouse strategy to revive the north of England.

The result is headlines such as this.

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Crossrail 2, which has been proposed for decades, is likely to get the go-ahead. It's a project to build an entirely new railway line in a tunnel through central London, connecting Wimbledon in the southwest of the city to Hackney in the northeast. Osborne has said he'll make it his "priority for London" and it's expected to cost a lot of money, which will require substantial central government investment. However, there's already a detailed route and planning is well underway.

High Speed 3, which will link Leeds and Manchester? Well, that's a bit different. What's been announced isn't exactly the entirely new transport link you might imagine.


High Speed 1 is an existing railway line. It's what carries the Eurostar at high speed from London into the Channel tunnel at 180mph.

High Speed 2 is the controversial new railway line that will criss-cross the country and carry trains at high speed from London to Birmingham, Manchester, and Leeds.

However, High Speed 3 is essentially just a case of taking this branding and applying it to the idea of improving railway services across the north of England.

Even the authors of the National Infrastructure Commission report commissioned for Osborne admit it's more about generally improving existing routes and "should be conceived as a high capacity rail network, rather than a single piece of entirely new infrastructure".

The main, headline-grabbing part of Tuesday's High Speed 3 announcement is that it will cut journey times between Manchester from 49 to 40 minutes by 2022.

Almost everyone from all sides of the political divide agrees that this is A Good Thing and it has been welcomed by Labour and Conservative MPs. However, it's also something that has already been announced on many occasions, even before anyone had even invented the name "HS3".

The main improvement has already been announced and is already underway: It's the electrification of the York to Manchester railway line. It was briefly cancelled by the government after the 2015 general election, only to be restarted months later following an outcry from northern business and politicians. This is the bit that – even before High Speed 3 was invented – was going to cut journey times to 40 minutes.

In fact, it's has been announced so many times that Osborne first unveiled it in his 2011 Autumn Statement, when it was due to be completed by 2019. But now, because of the delay, it won't be completed until 2022.

So what has Osborne *actually* promised for the north with the announcement?


He's committed £60 million to building a plan for High Speed 3, which will aim at some point after 2022 to reduce the journey time between Leeds and Manchester beyond the current target of 40 minutes.

Although the headline target is to reduce journey times to 30 minutes, this seems to be based on a line in the report which suggests that "new tunnels and/or the use of disused track" could reduce journey times between Leeds and Manchester "by between 1 and 10 minutes".

In short, Osborne has pledged money to develop ambitious plans for HS3. These plans will then require a substantial amount more money if they are to be made a reality.

Crucially, most of the HS3 plan involves upgrading or building stretches of new railway alongside the existing track rather than pushing ahead with an entirely new build.

Ed Cox, director of the IPPR North think tank, said there's a lot still to be done and that the region is still losing out on investment compared to the capital.

"It is important to remember though that project development work is no substitute for spades in the ground and only raises expectations about the government's ambitions for the North," he said.

"In due course, government will be expected to invest significant amounts of public money to finally get the construction of these projects off the ground, just as it has done with Crossrail in London.

"Until then, as a region – and as a nation – the amount of money we invest in transport infrastructure remains much lower than other developed nations."

Jim Waterson is a politics editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Jim Waterson at

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