The man charged with turning plans for a high speed rail link between Leigh and London into reality says that it will give the town a massive jobs boost.
In an exclusive interview with the Leigh Observer this week, Sir David Higgins said there were “huge economic benefits” to be enjoyed locally from the planned 200mph line south.
With journey times to Birmingham cut to just 35 minutes and travel time from Wigan North Western station reduced to one hour and 22 minutes, the HS2 executive chairman said that it would improve the desirability of places likes Leigh for investment.
He was full of praise for the borough council for anticipating the opportunities that the route would offer by already courting potential new investors with the incentive of far faster links to other centres.
Major local, long-term projects which the board hopes will be boosted by the line include the renaissance of Westwood Park just south of the town centre into a mixed use commercial and residential site set to create up to 1,000 jobs.
Completion looks far distant - it would be 2033 before the final planned section between Crewe and Golborne is scheduled to be opened.
Leigh has substantial gains to make with HS2, not just in terms of much faster links to London and Birmingham in themselves but the economic benefits they will bring.Sir David Higgins
But Sir David was keen to impress in his interview that the benefits can begin to be felt much sooner as investors move in.
And earlier sections, which themselves have a knock-on positive effect on the borough, would also be completed much sooner. It is expected that phase one will get royal assent this Christmas and be completed at the end of 2026, with phase two from Birmingham to Crewe being realised just a year later.
The Crewe to Golborne section - where HS2 would join up with the current West Coast Mainline to continue north - would be ready to go eight years after that.
As such, passengers in Leigh would be the last destination in the north to feel all but the full benefit of faster travel south. Trains thereafter slow down to “normal” speed although it is hoped that the mainline heading up to Carlisle and Scotland will also be enhanced.
It is planned to run 18 high speed trains per hour on the line, each capable of carrying up to 1,000 passengers, meaning that it will be as busy as the M1.
And by bypassing the regular mainline south of Golborne it means that the new trains won’t get stuck behind slower-moving passenger services and freight, making for more reliable and efficient overall service.
Sir David was speaking as a new report into the project, produced by nine local authorities to highlight its plusses, also said that Wigan North Western could get “an integrated station”.
Of course not everyone is happy with the link, activists in the Lowton area have voiced concerns that it will cause environmental damage and cause the loss of more jobs locally than it will create.
But while Sir David recognised that there was bound to be some upheaval, the benefits far outweighed the drawbacks.
He said: “Leigh has substantial gains to make with HS2, not just in terms of much faster links to London and Birmingham in themselves but the economic benefits they will bring.
“Some people are not realising the big benefits that connectivity can bring and the number one reason for this whole project is the creation of jobs.
“And this isn’t an either or option: there will also be more spending at the same time on existing road and rail routes.
“You can only do so much with motorways. We are never going to end up with a 10-lane M6 because all that will happen is that traffic will fill it up again. HS2 will mean faster, more efficient rail travel so there is less of a desire to use the car, and by HS2’s not using the West Coast Mainline that means more freight can go on the existing route, which takes it off the motorway.
“We have not built a new railway line north of London for more than 100 years so this is a huge commitment. Britain is well behind most other developed countries in the world who already have separate tracks for high speed trains.
“We understand that there will be communities for whom there will be an impact, although I would be surprised if, as it has been claimed in Lowton, the project costs jobs overall because it will open up new areas for development.
“In the end we have to balance the needs of the community with the overall economic benefits.
“We also believe that HS2 will help to reverse the northern brain drain to London.”
Sir David said he had met Wigan Council leader Lord Smith last week and had been impressed by the borough’s attitude and preparations.
A major depot was to have been built at Golborne as part of the plan but, after receiving representations led by Leigh MP Andy Burnham, it was decided to move it to Crewe instead.
Coun David Molyneux, deputy leader of Wigan Council, said: “The potential which HS2 can deliver for Wigan is enormous and it will be a major boost to the regeneration and growth of the borough.
“By incorporating HS2 into the council’s growth strategy it will have significant impact on our contribution to the growth of GM as a whole over the coming decades. Ultimately HS2 will be a catalyst for the regeneration of Wigan’s town centre making it an even more attractive place to live, work and visit. Integrating HS2 services into the existing transport network will spread the benefits as widely as possible across Wigan and neighbouring regions.”
Wigan Council has already announced proposals to link Wallgate and North Western stations better along with the refurbished bus station.
And the report highlights that with major firms Heinz, Poundland and NicePak already resident in the borough, high-speed rail links would help to attract even more.