Business leaders have urged parliament to revise “hugely shortsighted” designs for the next stage of HS2 as MPs start debating the latest stage in the high speed railway’s enabling legislation.
The bill for the north-western leg of the rail scheme that starts in London, intended to run from Crewe to Manchester by the mid-2030s, begins its second reading in Westminster on Monday.
But critics argue a ministerial plan to build central Manchester’s high-speed station above ground, rather than below, will cost the city almost half a million square metres of prime development land that could support 14,000 jobs.
Analysis carried out on behalf of Manchester city council estimates that by 2050 an underground version would provide £333mn a year in additional economic benefit.
Lou Cordwell, founder of digital design firm magneticNorth and chair of Greater Manchester’s local enterprise partnership, which brings together private and public sector organisations from across the region, called on government to rethink its “hugely shortsighted” design.
“A surface station will swallow up an enormous section of city centre land that will otherwise be incredibly economically productive and support our ‘levelling up’ ambitions,” she said, referring to the prime minister’s domestic policy focus on regional economic rebalancing.
“We must invest in a future-proofed underground option that is designed to last 100-plus years and empowers us to deliver the growth we know can be unlocked.”
The government has long indicated a preference for a six-platform surface station in Manchester, a view it confirmed in last year’s integrated plan for rail infrastructure in the north and midlands. An underground design would cost an additional £4bn to £5bn, it said, delaying the project by seven years while causing “greater disruption” to the city centre.
“The additional costs could not be justified by the value of additional regeneration benefit,” the rail strategy said of an underground station.
Juergen Maier, formerly chief executive of Siemens UK and now chair of Digital Catapult, a UK tech non-profit, said the estimated cost was an “exaggeration”, albeit one that would still be justified, including through regeneration opportunities.
Citing 2019 modelling by engineering consultancy Bechtel, carried out on behalf of Manchester city council, he added that the surface station currently planned would already be “at full capacity the day it opens”.
“You wouldn’t do this in London or Berlin; you wouldn’t do it in any other country, so why should we in Manchester?” he said. “Why do we never future-proof anything? We’re talking about infrastructure for the next 100 years here.”
Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership regional lobby group — whose members include Manchester airport, Arup, Barclays and EY — said the station design “reduces the benefits of HS2 economically”.
“There is a broad consensus across the north of England that an overground station at Manchester will damage the Northern Powerhouse Rail network,” he added.
The bill’s second reading must be used to “secure changes”, he added. Manchester council and the Greater Manchester combined authority intend to submit a “petition” as part of the legislative process, objecting to elements of the bill and calling for changes which will have to be considered as it passes through parliament.
The Department for Transport said: “We have worked with stakeholders and Greater Manchester partners from the outset and throughout the design stages of HS2, to deliver the best solution for the region.
“Our analysis found that an underground station would cause major disruption during construction and take passengers longer to reach platforms, cancelling out the benefits of faster journeys, all at an additional cost of up to £5bn while significantly delaying the introduction of full HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail services.”
The first leg of HS2, running between London and Birmingham, is due to open at some point between 2029 and 2033.