The longest road tunnel in Europe could be built as part of ambitious plans to speed up travel between Sheffield and Manchester.
A study, which is looking at whether a multi-billion-pound Trans-Pennine tunnel would be viable, has found there is a ‘clear strategic case’ for a new road link, including a series of tunnels, between the two cities.
But campaigners have branded the idea ‘simply madness’ and called for the idea to be rejected.
The interim report, led by Highway England, said travel links between the two cities are among the poorest in the country and investment into new roads is vital to unlocking growth in the north of England and improving road safety.
It also suggests the development of combined road and rail links through the tunnels could form part of the scheme.
The report said it is too early in the design of the scheme to have detailed economic costs and benefits, but suggests it could cut travel time by 30 minutes, improve productivity for businesses by between £171 million and £421 million per year, and bring further investment to the north.
It says: “The case for change is clear in that many of the transport interventions required to deliver the Northern Powerhouse are about improving east-west connectivity on both the road and rail networks.
“The current transport routes across the Pennines between Manchester and Sheffield are among the poorest in the country, limiting opportunities for economic interactions between two of the major urban centres in the north and adding pressure on other parts of the transport network.”
The report adds that the means by which the route will be funded have not yet been considered, but one option could be to introduce road-user tolls.
The study is yet to consider precise routes, but Highways England is understood to be considering several options, including tunnelling under the Woodhead Pass.
It adds: “The construction of a new strategic road link between Manchester and Sheffield is technically feasible, although it is likely to include a tunnel – or series of tunnels – that could be longer than any road tunnel constructed in Europe to date.”
The report, which is considering factors including engineering challenges and funding, is expected to be completed by October 2016.
However, questions about the high cost of the scheme – and whether it will ever come to fruition – have been raised by motorists’ groups.
The Campaign for Better Transport has called for ‘no more money to be wasted’ on the plans.
Chief Executive, Stephen Joseph, welcomed progress being made to develop the Northern Transport Strategy – a long-term strategy to join up the north – which ‘should put an end to damaging big road building projects which could be avoided if sustainable alternatives are properly considered.’
But he said: “It is disappointing therefore that the strategy mentions plans for a Trans-Pennine road tunnel, which is simply madness and should be rejected before any more money is wasted on it.
“Not only would it generate more traffic and increase already dangerous air pollution, these long road tunnels are notoriously dangerous, especially when freight is moved through them, and those examining the proposed scheme would do well to look at the safety of similar road tunnels on the continent.
“What people in the north of England want to see is real improvements to the everyday transport they rely upon.
“Expensive road building projects, which only increase congestion and pollution, will be all the more resented if people find there are no local buses to use their new smart tickets on and potholes remain unfilled.”
Rob Prior, of the former Sheffield Motorists’ Forum, questioned if the scheme would ever happen.
He said: “The faster they build it, the better. All politicians of all parties need to stop talking about it and get doing it.
“Based on the fact the electrification of the Midland Mainline has been announced five times, who knows if it will happen.
“I am hoping it will happen, but who knows?”