Better ways to spend £40bn

From: Eddie Johnston

By e-mail

Spending £40bn on a new high-speed railway line between London, Birmingham and Sheffield may be a good idea, even though the trains will come nowhere near the centre of Sheffield.

The station is likely to be in the Beighton area, so will need a car journey or bus ride to reach it. Rather like short-haul airlines, you’ll spend almost as long getting to and from them as you will actually on the train.

But let’s apply some sense of proportion before spending this sort of money (enough to electrify the rail line to London many times over).

There are many far less expensive and productive ways in which we ought to be improving our creaking and overcrowded rail network before building new lines.

Trains from Sheffield don’t only go to London. In fact, of around 20 trains leaving Sheffield every hour only two do so, while two or three go to Manchester and three or four to Leeds.

We also have regular services to Huddersfield, York and Liverpool, all towns to which the train services are vastly inferior than services to London, yet these are towns with which Sheffield people probably have far closer links than London.

We have ‘fast’ trains to Leeds and Manchester which take the best part of an hour and are made up of two or three carriages. This is branch line mentality, yet for relatively small amounts of money our local networks could be transformed.

It is claimed that a high-speed rail link between London, the Midlands and Yorkshire will grow the economy, boost business and create jobs, although I suspect it will do more for the South East than for us.

These were the arguments for the now-closed Tinsley Airport, but I do wonder whether, for most of us, these really are the important things in our lives. Life is surely about more than economic benefits and competing for visiting shoppers with towns around Sheffield.

Decent homes and enough of them, local jobs, well-kept parks, schools, clean well-lit streets and looked-after surroundings are top of my list.

I know high-speed trains are sexy but why aren’t we extending our tram network, for example, still just as limited as when it was built 15 years ago. Nottingham and Manchester are extending their systems; why aren’t we?

Our bus services must be among the worst of any comparably-sized city in the country, getting steadily worse and carrying fewer people every year. Most Sheffielders will use local buses and trains far more often than trains to London.

Lastly, I do wish someone would explain what these promised ‘economic benefits’ will really be. Get the bus to Hillsborough to spot the economic benefits that Supertram was supposed to bring.

Will faster trains mean that Sheffielders will be able to commute daily to London or rush down there to shop, keeping down the capital’s wage costs and diverting income from our local shops? Certainly, with email and improved telecommunications, the need for business travelling should be reducing rather than increasing.

The first high-speed rail line from London to France is still running no more trains than it did when it opened 15 years ago and carrying fewer passengers than the promoters promised.

So, longer, faster and more comfortable trains, please, on a network that doesn’t more or less pack up at 10pm, electrify the Midland main line to Derby and London (and other local lines) and then see how that £40bn might best be spent.