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Wednesday, 2 March 2011

High Speed Politicians

Chris Fletcher, Deputy Chief Executive of Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce

Monday afternoon saw the unique conjunction of Philip Hammond, Secretary of State for Transport and his shadow counterpart, Maria Eagle in Manchester at the same time having top level meetings about transport issues.

Whilst I was at a small round table meeting with Mr Hammond at the GMPTE offices, just a stone’s throw away my colleague Richard Critchley was meeting Ms Eagle.

The conversation with Mr Hammond was focussed on the launch of the formal consultation on High Speed 2 (HS2) and the potential strength of opposition from the Conservative heartlands of the Chilterns to the first stage between London and Birmingham.

Whilst a high speed rail link to London is still some way into the future there is a real ground swell of opposition beginning to build so the Secretary of State was very interested in starting the process of getting business on board in support of the scheme.

The Chamber has expressed its support in the past for HS2 and the extension of the proposed London to Birmingham line to Manchester. I have sat on several meetings of various stakeholders groups over the last few years as well as receiving numerous briefings from Lord Adonis – Mr Hammond’s predecessor who, interestingly enough, may be brought back into play by the current government to show how this issue crosses political boundaries.

So, whilst it may be some time yet before we can physically get on a train in Manchester and be in London just over an hour later the message from the Secretary of State was that the work starts now in making sure the scheme doesn’t get stopped in its tracks. We will be taking part in the consultation exercise and we will be keeping our members up to speed on developments as and when they happen.

Meanwhile over the road, literally, from my meeting, Richard Critchley the Chamber’s Transport, Environment and Planning Manager was meeting with Maria Eagle the Shadow Transport Secretary. Maria had been travelling from Leeds to Manchester to learn more about the Northern Hub rail proposals and what they could mean for the economy of the North. Richard was there to meet her when she arrived.

The Northern Hub is a package of rail improvements to relieve the bottleneck of trains around Piccadilly Station, freeing up huge capacity for faster, more frequent services to more destinations. Being fairly new to her role, it was a good opportunity for Maria to see and hear first hand what the Hub investment could mean for the economy of the North of England and the difficulties businesses and commuters faced with a restricted rail network.

The Chamber was keen to stress the lack of connectivity between Manchester Piccadilly and the northern areas, such as Rochdale and the impact that this has on journey times to London. To make these arguments more real, Maria has been invited to return to Greater Manchester and meet face to face with Chamber members, to discuss first hand the problems and expectations of businesses when travelling by rail.

So, from both sides of the political spectrum comes a single important message: transport infrastructure matters if you want a successful economy. Locally and short term the mantra is still more carriages, electrification and delivery of the Northern Hub – Manchester’s own Crossrail except a) it’s not in London so we have to work hard to convince the decision makers and b) it hasn’t got the funding and isn’t being built…yet. Nationally and longer term a high speed rail network linking the major cities will be a real game changer and will transform the UK economy and whilst the costs may seem eye watering in the current age of cuts in reality the timing is right to start the work now.

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