The NorthStart scheme is Michael Wand’s Plan B for HS2. As well as putting fast connectivity before top speed, it includes a rail link between London Stratford and Birmingham and a Pennine crossrail to fast-link Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester Victoria. Construction would start North-first and here’s why:

The tilt towards London

London dominates the UK and its economy to an extent not seen in any of its major competitors. The capital’s national and local institutions, media, businesses, traders, consultancies and the sheer extent of its commuter catchment combine to make it a virtual monopoly. And it has no real UK competitors.

Airport capacity

London also has the UK’s three biggest airports by passenger volume and runway length, each connected to the centre by rail. Even London Southend has a rail service to and from the capital. Only London Luton lacks.

Beyond London, Manchester has an airport rail service, Birmingham and East Midlands Airports a rail parkway each, but Leeds-Bradford not even that.

Meanwhile, the London lobby wants an Estuary 4 or a Heathrow 3 to meet forecast demand and the Howard Davies Commission is trying to work out what’s best.

A North-North divide

There is a further divide within the UK economy. What might otherwise be one major northern economic region is divided by the Pennine Moors and Peaks. The old city-to-city rail routes through this barrier do not help. Electrifying their twists and tunnels only sets the divide in stone. So the North needs a Plan B rail scheme too.

A Leeds-Manchester Crossrail

Because of the Pennine divide, the UK’s closest but most separate big cities are Manchester, Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield. The northern economy would gain if these cities were better connected.

The NorthStart scheme would do this with a high speed commuter Crossrail from Manchester Victoria to Leeds, tracking the M62 Motorway eastwards from Rochdale, with a commuter stop for Huddersfield/Halifax at M62 J24.

It would bring step-change improvements in the rail journey times and capacities between the major urban zones west and east of the Pennines.

Next, a Plan B route to Brum

Given the cost, the UK taxpayer needs a more productive high speed route from London to Birmingham. The NorthStart route connects the research power of Cambridge to the financial markets of London and the manufacturing capacity of the West Midlands. It runs north from the growing Stratford interchange, follows the Lea Valley line to beyond Harlow, then crosses the M11 to follow it to Stansted and Cambridge before tracking the congested A14 to Kettering-Corby and Coventry on its way into Birmingham, using the last few miles of the HS2 route. The scheme’s high speed EMUs would continue west beyond Wolverhampton to Telford.

An East Midlands focus

The obvious place for the two NorthStart routes to meet would be next to (or under) the East Midlands Airport terminal. If given chords towards Nottingham, Derby and Burton, East Midlands would have the critical mass to climb the league tables for long distance business flights, package holidays, aircraft servicing, visitors and local business growth. TGV-speed trains would stop here once the scheme had been extended south to London Stratford and their extra time savings made cost sense.

West Coast Main Line upgrade

The NorthStart scheme would more than deal with the long-term capacity shortfall on the WCML, while its short-term shortfall would be met (Chris Stokes1 agrees) if the rail route between London Euston and Manchester Piccadilly were upgraded to take 12 carriage trains, with one car in each changed to Standard Class from First Class.

Major and minor chords

The scheme can offer connecting chords for high-speed EMUs off its main line into Cambridge, Coventry, Sheffield and Huddersfield in addition to its chords towards Nottingham and Derby from the interchange at East Midlands Airport.

Visible engineering and northern jobs

A North-first start on UK high speed rail should be seen as an opportunity to anchor railway design, civil engineering, tunnel work, power supply, steel making, component supply and train making capacity north of the North South Divide. In particular, it is an opportunity for more visible engineering by Team GB.


Bradford and its economy have lost much ground over the last forty years and NorthStart aims to put them back on the map. The scheme would replace Bradford’s Forster Square and Interchange stations with a single new one, Bradford City, opposite the Cathedral and next to the Westfield shopping centre site. The main line would run north out of this new station in cut and cover and south from it on viaduct, a chance for some confident and visible engineering.

Leeds-Bradford Airport

The main line would continue north east from the Bradford cut and cover section into two tunnel and one bridge sections to emerge into an interchange station at Leeds-Bradford Airport with platforms for the rail link from Leeds long been proposed by Leeds City Council. Then, it’s on past Harrogate towards the Tees and Tyne.

So, what’s wrong with London-first?

London will remain the UK’s great economic powerhouse. It has four major international airports. Its commuter arteries reach out across the south of England to a population catchment and spending power twice that of Birmingham and Manchester put together.

If there is no Plan B and HS2 is launched London-first, central Birmingham will find itself within an hour’s commute of London’s massive business sector so that the London economy will grow off its new Birmingham business and the North South Divide will become set in stone.

The NorthStart scheme could lessen that divide by bringing three of the four biggest business centres outside London closer to each other in rail journey times, supported by a catchment population twice that of Birmingham; all beyond the North South Divide and well beyond London’s huge gravitational pull. The HS2 package will not do that.

Michael Wand is now retired but formerly part of the Eurorail team’s bid for HS1,1995; strategic adviser to the HS1 route planning team, 1990-94; a director of Trafalgar House Corporate Development Ltd, 1986-89; chief development surveyor, London Docklands Development Corporation, 1981-4.
Chris Stokes was a non-executive board member at the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) 2004-2006, and non-executive chairman of Agility Trains 2008-2009.