Scream if you want to go faster

I don’t travel to London as often these days.  My current activities dictate otherwise but whenever I do, I find it one of the more productive journeys I can make. The same can be said for the run up the coast to Edinburgh which admittedly is more picturesque but a similar length and provides a largely uninterrupted couple of hours to get some work done. The poor phone reception in parts can be a bind but if you plan correctly then the lack of phone calls can also provide time to do more work.

This was the start of my issue with HS2 when I asked myself, do I want to get there quicker? Well, that’s a silly question. I know of course I would want to get there quicker but then I mean, quickly: 30 minutes on Hyperloop for instance.  Now that would be swift and it would have an obvious impact on my day, but we are talking about less than an hour saved, 1 hour 40 for the whole return trip.  I’m struggling to see how this is going to help me very much and I imagine the same goes for a lot of people. In fact, I have in the past found myself wishing the journey was a little longer so I could finish what I was doing.  I don’t recall a time when I wished it would arrive sooner, apart from the time someone threw themselves on the line between Peterborough and Grantham and we couldn’t move for hours.

One of the proposed routes for Hyperloop in the North

I don’t think speed is the issue here, but cost most certainly is and you could throw in comfort, space and even frequency. You could even look at adding a better phone signal for those who need it. In fact, if you’re thinking about the business traveller which I know is the main focus of HS2, then you could look at many ways to make the journey more productive. I’m thinking meeting rooms and high-speed internet connections. All of these could enhance the offering but speed, the main benefit being touted, would be way down my list.

It’s going to cost billions and no doubt more than any number they estimate at the start. The planned route is already upsetting people and will most certainly upset countless more once construction starts.

The fact is, the UK’s current rail network isn’t in the best shape and most certainly needs investment. I think few would disagree that some money (albeit much less) should be spent on that. It could also be spent on a new generation of rolling stock to improve the passenger experience. How often do you hear about people travelling on the Orient Express complaining that it was taking too long to get there? An extreme example I know but I’m making a point. People often complain about public transport because the overall experience is poor, not because of the journey time alone.

Business travel on a VR train in Finland

As Editor of a local publication, I must look at it from a Leeds perspective. Our City has been fraught with transport-related issues over the years and they continue to be the subject of much conversation and controversy. For those of you who don’t know, we are the only major city of its size in Europe without a third means of transport, by which I mean subway, tram or trolleybus in place to supplement the buses and existing local rail network. Previous schemes have been proposed, millions of pounds have been wasted and the City has ended up with nothing but more congestion and tens of thousands of disgruntled commuters.

When it takes over an hour to travel 6 miles to get to Leeds Station in the morning, do you think the problem really lies with the speed of the trains to London? Manchester maybe, other major population centres regionally, most definitely, but London – no. Likewise for those travelling to Leeds: if your business is conducted further afield than walking distance then the 50 minutes you saved getting here will soon be eclipsed by the horrid journey you need to make to get to your final destination.

Typical morning on the A65 from Kirkstall

Okay, let’s be pragmatic. I know we can’t expect the public purse to fund a transport problem in a single City. HS2 is meant to benefit the many and that sentiment is good. We should have more country-wide initiatives that benefit those outside London, especially in the North, but the powers that be are planning to spend £500 million on a vast new station in Leeds to sit at the end of this ‘superfast’ line.

Agreed the existing station is in dire need of improvement: as a key gateway to the City and one of the busiest rail hubs in the country, it’s quite frankly an embarrassment and arguably not fit for purpose. If you ever find yourself trying to get through the new barriers during rush hour you’ll know exactly where I’m coming from. As for the public toilets, God forbid anyone arrives in Leeds for the first time and finds themselves caught short.

Proposed design for the new HS2 station

However, we don’t need to spend £500 million to construct millions of sq ft of additional commercial space with a glass roof. We have one of those already.  It’s called Trinity, it’s much smaller than that and there are currently empty units in Trinity. The same could be said for the other shiny new addition to our retail offering, Victoria Gate, where there are even more empty units. In fact, when you look at the City Centre, most if not all our streets have empty retail units and yet more empty office space above. Despite the valiant cleanup efforts of Leeds BID, those very streets are in a terrible state of repair and rough sleeping and violent crime are the worst I’ve seen in 20 years.

I’d like someone to look me in the eye and sincerely tell me that reducing the journey time from London or Birmingham for that matter is going to encourage enough new business to come to Leeds and fill an additional 3 million sq ft of commercial space, when we can’t fill what is already available.

Historic Kirkgate as it looks in 2017

Why do some people think the best way to improve a City is to keep building more of it? Surely we should look to improve what is already here and by that I don’t mean the buildings alone or the inadequate public space, but the infrastructure as a whole, and I’m talking anywhere and everywhere with an LS postcode, not only the City Centre. Yes, that’s going to cost a lot more than £500 million but it’s a very fine start and there’s no better place to start than with our local transport problems. The world first railless train went on trial recently in China. That’s exactly the kind of innovation we need here in the UK, solutions to real-world problems, problems that affect people every day.

New railless train in China

When you start to criticise a major development like this in Leeds you run the risk of being called a pessimist or being accused of holding the City back. For those of you who know me, you’ll know that’s far from the truth.  For those who don’t then please feel free to get to know me.

The truth is Leeds does have a serious transport problem but HS2 isn’t the solution. Start talking to the people sitting in their cars and waiting at bus stops and ask if their morning commute will improve because we’re building a train station bigger than our local airport. Maybe we should solve the problems that our people face and then if we have any money left we can start building the shiny new things.

Scream if you’d like to go faster, Leeds, or maybe just scream; it might make you feel better.

  • Written by

    Paul Simon | Editor