In an interview with The Star, the executive chairman of HS2 Ltd said he was persuaded to ‘reflect and re-look’ at the proposed line due to the passion of the debate.
A major report published today is expected to recommend a switch from Meadowhall to Midland station in Sheffield city centre.
HS2 trains will use existing railway track to get into and out of Sheffield via Chesterfield and north through Rotherham.
The ‘Sheffield loop’ is set to save £1bn compared to the cost of building a station on a two-mile viaduct at Meadowhall. Meanwhile, the main north-south HS2 line to Leeds will be shifted east from Rotherham to follow the M1 and M18 before ploughing north through Conisbrough, Mexborough in Doncaster and Grimethorpe in Barnsley.
The Star, Sheffield City Council, Sheffield Chamber and hundreds of businesses and organisations campaigned for a city centre stop to maximise the economic impact of HS2.
Sir David, who is in charge of the £55bn project, said it was one of the most difficult decisions he had faced.
He added: “I was very aware of the campaign. The strength and unity from a business viewpoint and political leaders and Transport for the North made me reflect and re-look.
“Maybe in the case of Meadowhall we were pushing an engineering rather than an economic solution, despite support from Barnsley, Rotherham and Doncaster.
“We always had concerns about the technical feasibility of a viaduct at Meadowhall but then had to revisit the whole case following the advent of Northern Powerhouse Rail.
“Midland was best for serving the city and has the best connections with rail and tram.”
Northern Powerhouse Rail – dubbed HS3 – is a plan by Transport for the North for frequent ‘shuttle’ services taking just half-an-hour between Sheffield, Leeds and Manchester. The Sheffield loop will see HS2 trains join existing train tracks south of Chesterfield to reach Sheffield. They will return to the main line, with a top speed of 225mph, near Grimethorpe to the east of Barnsley.
Sheffield to London journey times will be cut from two hours to 1hr 19m, and 1hr 23m with a stop at Chesterfield, with two services an hour.
The Sheffield station controversy has delayed plans to finalise the eastern leg of HS2 for months. Now the route is set to be officially adopted by the Secretary of State for Transport, Patrick McLoughlin, in the Autumn Statement in November.
Following the Brexit vote to leave the European Union and the Tory leadership contest, some have called the future of the huge infrastructure project – the biggest since the Victorian era – into doubt.
But Sir David insisted it was ‘business as usual’ and that now more than ever HS2 was needed to rebalance the economy away from the might of London and boost the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ – the Chancellor’s plan for northern cities to work as one economy on the world stage. The vote to leave by huge swathes of the north was seen as a slap in the face of the establishment by disaffected and disadvantaged people.
“Sheffield has sent a clear message that you don’t take the North and Midlands for granted,” said Sir David.
Sir David also quashed rumours that Manchester Airport would not be connected to HS2 to save money. He added: “It has to stand the test of time. It would be bizarre and short sighted not to link into the only other two-runway airport in the country.”
The row in Sheffield also led some to fear the region would miss out on HS2 altogether.
Frustrated business leaders in the East Midlands even urged Sheffield to ‘make your ruddy mind up’ so that the project could advance.
But Sir David said there were never any plans to abandon the city.
He added: “There was enormous frustration from Phase Two cities because of the delay but Sheffield was never going to lose out altogether.”
In fact, today’s report is expected to reveal Sheffield City Region could benefit from three HS2 stops including the city centre, Chesterfield – where Sir David says there’s a ‘huge catchment’ of potential travellers – and a ‘parkway’ station, possibly on the line through Doncaster.
It is understood today’s report will call for a station on the newly proposed M18/Eastern route. Sir David said there were four sections of track in the county straight enough to build a station.
The final route announcement in November will trigger the compensation and investment process, he added.
“Industry is ready to invest and people who are sitting on sites ready to go. Once there is certainty things can get underway.”
Sheffield City Council had been calling for a switch of site from Meadowhall to the city centre since the plans were published in 2012. The drive powered into gear in December when The Star launched its ‘City Centre or Bust’ campaign.
We ran a raft of articles highlighting the extra demand in the city and the extra time it would take to get to Meadowhall. The shopping centre also suffers badly with congestion and air pollution and the demolitions – affecting steelworks Outokumpu and Firth Rixson, now Alcoa – would be expensive and hit the economy. And the underlying rocks were fractured, waterlogged and full of holes from mining, according to retired city council engineer Adrian Millward.
In February, Sheffield Chamber staged an HS2 Summit calling for the location to be looked at again using five principles based on demand and economic impact – as had been used in Leeds where a campaign led to its station being shifted.
Some 200 companies signed a petition backing the Chamber’s demands. The next day The Star produced an eight-page manifesto setting out the case for a city centre stop with supporting comments from two dozen city leaders.
In June, HS2 commissioned a station review.
Today’s report is expected to back the city centre, representing a victory for Team Sheffield.