I wrote an opinion piece on the importance of HS2 to the region and the economy back in 2019 – pre-pandemic – and now that the government has published its Integrated Rail Plan, I think its right to review the latest government plans and what it means to the local economy – both in terms of inward investment and access for people and visitors.

The background to this is that Nottingham has the 2nd worst rail connections of any major city in the UK (behind Bradford which seriously missed out last week). But also, Nottingham (pre-pandemic) had one of the country’s most used train stations, well ahead of local cities, and just behind the large cities of Birmingham and Manchester.

Historically the East Midlands has had the lowest level of train investment of any UK region. The need for better connectivity and a better deal for the area are unarguable.  It is also worth saying that Covid 19 has in the short term, cut passenger numbers for all forms of public transport, and city centres are still not back up to the pre-pandemic levels of office staff will they ever return to pre-pandemic levels?

Surely most private sector businesses have learnt that smaller, more tech enabled offices, is a win – enhanced productivity and lower direct costs. Why pay for an office that you no longer need?  Will public transport needs change post Covid – 100% yes.  In a recent study by the national research agency EMR (not to be confused with East Midlands Rail), they indicated that 1% of businesses would return to full 5 day per week offices, so flexible working and hybrid working have become the norm.

What is good about the IRP?  Well it was correct to review rail demand post Covid and the infrastructure commission reviewed the investment in rail beyond looking at HS2 alone. One factor highlighted there and in the recent IRP, was that HS2 meant high speed trains did not come into major cities like Nottingham and Derby.  The IRP highlights that HS2, as planned, was years away and with so far uncommitted electrification, as a person of a certain age, none of the benefits of the Eastern leg would benefit me of working age at least, in the original plan.

So, the good news:

  • Midlands Mainline will be electrified. This will make many long and short commuter distances quicker and reduce carbon footprint. This work can start earlier and deliver benefits quickly. That will benefit Nottingham, Derby and Leicester and has the potential to improve some of the other local services to Mansfield, Ashfield etc. See below.
  • HS2 to East Midlands Parkway means HS2 direct trains from Nottingham to London and Birmingham without the need for a change. That delivers faster, better-quality services from the centre of Nottingham to other major centres and means Nottingham will have an HS2 station – not left out on a branch line with a shuttle link. For local politicians critical of the lack of Eastern leg, surely the benefits of East Midlands Parkway over Toton are worth stating too.
  • Some sort of upgrade to the line through Toton, with a new station/option at Toton, with links to Ashfield and Mansfield via the Maid Marian line, and onwards to Ollerton and Edwinstowe for Sherwood Forest. Businesses and leaders from those areas should push hard to re-open the Maid Marian line, for a station at Toton (which will be a local not a mainline station), and then potential connectivity to London and Birmingham via the HS2 line in the future. The benefits of Midland Mainline electrification, electrifying the central Toton rail spine and Maid Marian line has the potential to open services on existing track a lot sooner than any HS2 Eastern Leg.

So, what about the bad news. This has been articulated by others, notably the Chamber of Commerce and MPs and Council leaders both in the Midlands, Yorkshire and the North East. However, from a Nottingham/Nottinghamshire perspective:

  • Connectivity southwards is only half the story. No eastern leg beyond parkway (even with all the other IRP plans) means no step change improvements in connections from Nottingham to Sheffield, Leeds, the North East and Scotland. The Leeds Birmingham improvements are via Manchester, and the improvements London to Scotland are also via the Western HS2 leg. This means that Nottingham (and Bradford) continue to miss out on those connectivity improvements which are so essential. Whether commuting or visiting, not having the step change in rail infrastructure that will exist in the south (half of HS2 length and benefit is into London), the West Midlands and North West, means the East Midlands and Yorkshire (population of 6million) don’t have those seamless connections. Anyone who travels from Nottingham to Scotland, knows that changes at Newark (by walking 5 mins from one station on the East West Route to another station on East Coast Mainline) is not seamless travel. Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire are neighbours, but rail connectivity means that is not how it seems. Pick any large town or city in those two counties and check out their rail connectivity and by and large they are poor – slow, multiple changes, low capacity routes, often with one or two car carriages. All those benefits are lost in the new plan.
  • The potential improvements highlighted above to Mansfield and Ashfield and onwards to Sherwood Forest, and new stations at Toton, and electrifying the Maid Marian/Toton route are not fully funded in the plan. Indeed, the electrification North of parkway is only for the Derbyshire leg, Derby to Sheffield. This was a missed opportunity and a disbenefit for North Nottinghamshire. These areas don’t need expensive tram networks like Leeds has been promised, but simply would benefit by reconnecting existing lines and using existing track routes (potentially adding 4th lines where they had previously been reduced to 2 or 3 tracks). These are real Red Wall seats, but also the Mansfield/Ashfield/Sherwood Forest area has a large potential to regeneration and levelling up, with millions being spent on Towns Fund and Future High Street projects to regenerate their urban centres and connect to visitor attractions in the area. A 40 min journey from Mansfield to Nottingham and then changing to another line to get to Birmingham, Leicester, or London, could be transformed with only a small addition to the announced Midland Mainline electrification. Once HS2 to East Midlands Parkway is opened, why not look at improved local services to connect to East Midlands Parkway, and in the meantime through services to Birmingham and London. There is potential for visitor orientated routes to Edwinstowe and Ollerton for Sherwood Forest. Make the rail plan truly carbon neutral by providing links to green leisure spaces!
  • If the HS2 Eastern leg terminates at East Midlands Parkway, then why not speed up implementation of that shorter easier to deliver leg? The route is easier to construct in that part of the HS2 network is running alongside the M42 for most of its route. Therefore, as the route is built from Birmingham to Crewe, it’ll be quicker to get Western leg benefits. Why not speed up by 10 years the benefits to the Eastern leg to East Midlands Parkway? Delivered in 2035, not 2045?
  • Other Midlands Connect projects that support local rail – a notable issue is the east west connectivity to Coventry that is not fixed with any of the new IRP. Again, a commitment to this route improvement would be much smaller in scale to the overall £96billion announced but would generate significant capacity and journey time improvements. There may be other improvements.
  • What else can the Eastern leg spur help deliver? Would a chord of connection East West between say Ashby and Lichfield enable Nottingham to Manchester connectivity? As the route is no longer the London/Leeds/Scotland route – would an extra stop halfway benefit local areas – Ashby, Coalville etc. Local areas often complain that they can see the HS2 lines but not see the benefits.

It is also worth saying that for many people the concerns remain high eyewatering costs, long times in delivery, loss of wildlife habitat and a high cost on consultants and expensive senior staff. The government needs to address these issues too as it moves forward. Local leaders and businesses need to fight for more of the investment that this area is still not getting.