Northern strategy must embrace the future

Northern strategy must embrace the future

To provide the transport connections the north of England, high speed rail should be complemented by autonomous vehciles acting as feeders.

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Partner and Head of Infrastructure Building & Construction

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By Richard Threlfall, Head of Infrastructure, Building & Construction at KPMG in the UK

I am evangelical about the transport revolution that will be unlocked by autonomous vehicles. But the recent claim by the Taxpayers’ Alliance that they will obviate the need for HS2 is just nonsense.

Recent research by KPMG in the US estimated that by 2050, autonomous vehicles would lead to more than a trillion additional personal miles travelled, and up to four trillion additional vehicle miles travelled, because of the likely reduction in vehicle occupancy rates (The Clockspeed Dilemma, KPMG International, January 2016). So autonomous vehicles will revolutionise our lives, but if anything they will require more investment in transport capacity, including efficient mass transit between cities and in congested city centres.

A recent report by Balfour Beat- ty (Infrastructure 2050: Future Infra- structure Need, July 2016) recognised the synergy between high speed rail and future autonomous vehicles. High speed rail will conquer the inter-urban market, potentially obliterating domestic aviation. Autonomous vehicles will provide the connections into that network, from the smallest rural hamlet, the remote suburb, or the city-centre transport interchange.

 

The Northern Powerhouse as a megacity

And this is my vision of the Northern Powerhouse and the critical role of HS2 in it.  Theresa May is reportedly lukewarm on the Northern Powerhouse, worrying that it promotes the interest of one part of the country over others. That misses the point. The Northern Powerhouse is not an artificial construct. It is an articulation of what transport technology will soon make possible in a region of the world with a remarkable concentration of major cities relatively close together.  The basic facts are well rehearsed: a £300bn economy; a population of 15 million.  If the Northern Powerhouse functioned as a single economy, it would be a megacity, one of the top 40 in the world.

That is not fanciful. Another well-worn fact is that the centres of Leeds and Manchester are no further apart than the ends of the Central Line in London. And Leeds and Sheffield the distance of the Northern Line.  Aha, say the sceptics, but what about the beautiful national parks that separate these cities? Are you planning to flatten the hills and concrete them over at vast expense and in the teeth of public outrage?  No, I am not. Engineers have been boring tunnels across London for a hundred years. Work is about to start on start boring an 8m diameter tunnel to store sewage and avoid polluting the River Thames. It is really no big deal to connect the cities of the north of England with tunnelled roads and railways.  HS2 provides an artery into which a future transport strategy for the North can be plugged.

 

Towards HS3

It provides long-term capacity between London and the North, and as KPMG’s September 2013 economic analysis HS2 Regional Economic Impacts showed, that capacity benefits the North more than the South, because it helps trade flow to the lower-cost economy of the North. But it does not of itself create the transport connectivity which the North needs. In particular, the recent proposal that HS2 phase two should not stop at Meadowhall means the connectivity of all the northern cities is something which needs to be addressed through HS3.

By the end of next year Transport for the North should have brought forward a strategy for HS3, which I hope will distinguish the creation of a new high speed inter-city network for the Northern Powerhouse from the upgrading of lines to strengthen commuter flows. I would like to see a dedicated city centre to city centre network, tunneled where necessary, and using a next generation technology such as that being developed by Hyperloop in the US.

 

A Northern Hyperloop?

A Hyperloop connection would reduce the journey time between the centres of Leeds and Manchester to just a few minutes; Liverpool to Newcastle in 20 minutes; Liverpool to Hull in 15 minutes. To put that in context, Canary Wharf to Bond Street via the Jubilee Line currently takes about 20 minutes.  A network like that would turn the North into a multi-centre megacity. But complementary investment would still be needed within each city-region to provide connectivity into and out of those central transport hubs.

That is why the masterplanning around the Leeds and Manchester HS2 terminuses is vitally important. Those new stations should not be seen as the ends of the line, but as the gateways into both the city and rural hinterlands.  And here too, visionary thinking is needed. The tram, the bus, park and ride – these are all potentially yesterday’s solutions to yesterday’s opportunities.  City and business leaders today should be thinking about the world in 20 years’ time, when the HS2 network is completed.  That will be the world of the autonomous vehicle. That is why we need to start planning for that transport revolution now.

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