Launch of the High Speed 2 (HS2) Phase 2b western leg Bill will spark more serious discussion of alternative proposals for an underground station at Manchester Piccadilly, the consultant backing the idea has said.
The Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) –published in November – confirmed that the government's preferred option is for a “turnback” surface station in Manchester alongside the existing Network Rail station.
However in June 2020, architect Weston Williamson & Partners and engineering consultants Expedition Engineering proposed combining HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR)’s Manchester Piccadilly stations into a single integrated through station located below ground.
Weston Williamson & Partners founding partner Rob Naybour has now toldNCEthat the Bill's deposit last week "kicks off the serious consultation".
"Everything else is just sort of positioning to this point," he said. "There's been consultation but it gets a bit more serious now."
Naybour stands by the underground station as a better option, suggesting that the Bill process could be the moment it is finally given proper consideration.
"The tunnels and so on through the Chilterns were a way of getting the [Phase 1] bill through quickly and reacting to negative consultation," he said. "You could see a similar process to do with Manchester. How do you react if there is a negative reaction to what I would call a dead end terminus station?"
The Bill process involves a number of readings, consultations and reports in both the House of Commons and House of Lords (see diagram below).
Weston Williamson & Partners and Expedition have said that building HS2 and NPR platforms as above ground terminus platforms as currently planned would lead to continued cross-city rail connectivity problems, slowing journeys across Manchester and reducing the capacity on the new station platforms.
Two key arguments put forward for a surface station in the IRP are timescale and cost but Naybour said he is "not convinced on either".
The government has said that an underground station is expected to cost a minimum of at least £4bn to £5bn more than a surface station, demonstrate weaker value for money and carry a greater risk of increasing construction costs.
However, Naybour said he hasn't seen any data to back up the £4bn to £5bn figure.
The government has also suggested that likely timescales to prepare designs, seek consents, and then build an underground station would mean western leg opening benefits were delayed by a minimum of seven years – but Naybour believes "there is a way to bring in HS2 trains early on the spare viaduct to the north of Piccadilly".
"We think you can deliver HS2 trains into the station pretty quickly in the interim while you are building the box," he explained. "We think the box and the deeper station is the right solution long term for Manchester and then you tunnel through and join an NPR route.
"I think there is a short term solution to bring trains into Manchester and I think there is a longer term solution that gives the potential to take trains on to Leeds. And you're tunnelling into Manchester anyway so not coming out of the ground seems like an advantage to me."
Naybour emphasised that other European cities - such as Madrid, Vienna and Berlin - are "getting rid of their terminus stations and building through stations and we seem to be going the other way".
He added: "In this instance, there are terminus stations at Euston, Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester. And I think it's because the major projects have not been integrated properly and the IRP still doesn't do that.
"If you were integrating these projects, NPR and any new line going east to west across the Pennines would link directly into HS2 and you would try and run the trains by hook or crook the length of the country."
A Department for Transport (DfT) spokesperson said: “We’ve worked with Greater Manchester partners from the start of this project to deliver the best solution for the region.
“Our analysis found that an underground station would cause major disruption during construction and take passengers longer to reach platforms, cancelling out the benefits of faster journeys, all at an additional cost of up to £5bn while significantly delaying the introduction of full HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail services.
“A surface station offers the best value for money and supports Greater Manchester’s ambitions to realise the benefits that HS2 will bring to the region.”
It comes after Manchester City Council called on the government to reconsider the "compelling case" for an underground station in the city.
The council said that the proposed overground station would “squander” some “huge potential benefits” provided by an underground station.
The station upgrade is necessary because Manchester’s current stations do not have the capacity needed for the improved services planned, including high speed services to Birmingham and London (with the latter assumed to be operated with 400m trains) or for future NPR services.
According to the IRP, the proposed new surface station would allow the HS2 line into Manchester to serve the airport.
In addition, work by the DfT, HS2 Ltd, Network Rail and Transport for the North, shows that an expanded version of the surface station (moving from four to six platforms) could support future NPR services, as well as HS2.
The station could facilitate up to 14 trains per hour from a combination of HS2 and NPR services, which HS2 Ltd judges the maximum practical capability of the HS2 line into Manchester.