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UK government backs northern 'HS3' as part of new regional transport strategy

The UK government is to "formalise" regional transport cooperation in the north of England, with the creation of a new public body responsible for developing a proposal for a 'High Speed 3' link between Leeds and Manchester.

A new 'Transport for the North' body, made up of the main northern city regions, will set out its initial proposals for HS3 as part of a "comprehensive regional transport strategy" by next March, the government said. The announcement comes as part of its response to a new report by Sir David Higgins, chair of High Speed 2 (HS2) Ltd, which sets out recommendations for maximising the benefits that a proposed new national high speed rail line could create in the north of England.

"The vision I set out earlier this year of the northern powerhouse we could build is rapidly taking shape," said George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer.

"I asked Sir David Higgins to look at how we deliver the better transport links across the north that would make a reality of that powerhouse. I'm delighted with the rapid response and the report. Today we take another big step forward in delivering both the HS2 links from north to south and the HS3 link across the Pennines," he said.

'Rebalancing Britain', the latest report by Higgins (40-page / 3.6MB PDF), also backed current plans for a second phase of the HS2 line linking Manchester and Leeds to the initial route, which will run from Birmingham to London and is currently scheduled for completion in 2026. His proposals included bringing forward plans for a hub station at Crewe to 2027, and the need to reconsider the best site for a station in Leeds. Higgins said that alternatives to the proposed 'y-network' would not bring the same capacity, connectivity and economic benefits.

Under current plans, HS2 is to be built in two stages at a combined cost of £42.6 billion, much of which is contingency. Legislation which, once passed, will give the government powers to construct and operate the initial London to Birmingham section of the line is currently before the UK parliament, with work scheduled to begin in 2017. The government is due to publish its plans for a proposed second phase, connecting the line to Manchester and Leeds, next year. This phase would be completed by 2033, although Higgins is keen to see work completed earlier.

In the 'One North' report, published in August, representatives of the north of England's five largest towns proposed the construction of an additional 'HS3' link between Manchester and Leeds to improve connectivity between the cities and with the rest of the country via HS2. In his latest report, Higgins backed these plans and said that such a link could ultimately be "as important to the north as Crossrail is for London". The time taken for the 40-mile rail journey between the two cities could be cut from 55 minutes to "somewhere between 26 and 35 minutes", depending on which plans were taken forward.

"Overall, this report confirms Sir David's confidence in the plans and deliverability of HS2," said transport expert Patrick Twist of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com. "What is new is the increased emphasis on the need to rebalance the economy and how HS2 can contribute to that, picking up on the One North plans and on the chancellor's stated commitment to create a 'northern powerhouse'."

"Higgins states, with some force, why improved east-west connectivity in the north of England if this rebalancing is to be real. He sees 'HS3' as integral to this. It's still very much an embryonic idea which is more about enhancing and speeding up existing classic lines and is definitely not a blueprint for a further new 225mph line," he said.

Setting out his conclusions on the current proposals for Phase Two of HS2, Higgins recommended that the planned route into Manchester city centre via the airport should be taken forward with the potential to add a new airport station at a later date. However, the location of the planned station for Leeds should be reviewed depending on the nature of future east-west services through the city. HS2 itself should be extended to Crewe by 2027, six years earlier than currently proposed, in order to improve links between London, Birmingham and the north of England, he said.

Any final decisions on Higgins' recommendations for Phase Two of the line will be made by the government; which has also announced a review into the costs and time it takes to build high speed rail. This review will "draw on international experience" to find ways to bring down the cost of HS2 and future high speed rail projects, the government said.

"The link between Birmingham and Crewe is an important connection," said major infrastructure planning expert Robbie Owen of Pinsent Masons. "Bringing forward this part of Phase Two and aligning it with Phase One as 'Phase 1a' would be a sensible move as it would reduce timescales and cost and avoid delays."

"In the face of aging infrastructure coupled with post-recession woes, the UK is in need of infrastructure investment. HS2 makes sense for businesses and re-balancing the national and regional economies. Let's remember our rail network is in need of modernisation and is currently stretched and creaking - capacity is a major issue for the people of the UK. Derailing plans for HS2 could potentially be detrimental to re-balancing the economy and getting the UK building," he said.

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