TransPennine: “Go the whole way, complete the M67, with a tunnel underneath”

As we approach the autumn budget statement on Wednesday 3rd December – widely anticipated to be a massive infrastructure ‘giveaway’ before the General Election in May 2015 – the expectations and anxieties about its transport content are just ramping up. The extent to which the Manchester-Sheffield TransPennine corridor, the subject of a government ‘‘notoriousand longstanding road hotspot’’ feasibility study and consequently of one of Transport~North’s three priority campaigns, will feature has been in the news this week, and this time it’s been Deputy Prime Minister and Sheffield MP Nick Clegg who’s been signalling his support for large-scale road schemes in the run-up to his Northern Futures conference that took place in Leeds on Thursday, 6th November.

Ignoring his own party’s frequent claim to be the most ‘green’, the Yorkshire Post reported: “Mr Clegg wants the major cities of the North connected by electrified rail and maximum journey times between Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester cut to 40 minutes by 2025. He also wants to see the M62 become an eight-lane motorway between Leeds and Manchester and improvements to the Woodhead Pass connecting Sheffield and Manchester. … The roads and railway lines connecting our great northern cities have seen improvements in recent years, but I want more. Much more. As we negotiate over what gets government funding in the Autumn Statement, one of my key priorities will be to change that. We need to get this started as soon as possible.”

CBT’s response was immediate: ‘Stephen Joseph said: “”The Deputy Prime Minister has added his voice to the welcome consensus that the north’s rail infrastructure is overdue significant investment. … By contrast, proposing more lanes of traffic through the Woodhead Pass would be a backward step, giving rise to concerns about major road building in the National Park.”

To substantiate the DPM’s ideas there’s a slim Blueprint for growth in the North of England document, a compilation of submissions and proposals received through ‘extensive engagement online, through seminars and roundtables and in meetings’. Top of the list is ‘Creating a world class transport network in the North’ and, to be fair, the strongest emphasis is on rail investment and there is no mention of aviation and airports – all this is good. But under ‘investment increasing capacity on the road network’ these three suggestions are given a sort of endorsement-by-inclusion:

– “Improving the road connections across the Pennines between Sheffield and Manchester is hugely important, whether that is upgrading the existing routes or going the whole way and completing the M67 with a tunnel underneath.” (Sheffield City Region roundtable)
– “Dualing the A1 North of Newcastle will surely increase business, especially between Newcastle and Scotland. Getting rid of that bottleneck will speed up logistics for many companies and encourage more into the North East.” (Tracy, online contribution)
“We need the ability to manage the strategic highways network where it impacts on our city region so we can tackle congestion effectively.” (West Yorkshire Combined Authority)

So now we know. ‘Improving’ the Manchester-Sheffield road corridor is ‘hugely important’, and therefore, if there happens to be the Peak District National Park in between, then logically what we should be doing is putting ‘a tunnel underneath’. And of course not just any old tunnel but a motorway-capacity tunnel because otherwise, at either end, the two surface motorways connecting on to Manchester and Sheffield will just run into another – what’s it called? – ah yes, ‘congestion hotspot’.

[Those of you who want to read about the history of the M67 – another 5 mile long ‘motorway to nowhere’ -can do so here  and here . First proposed in 1965 as the start of a Manchester-Sheffield motorway, two short sections were opened in 1978 and 1981, before the much larger project crumbled to nothing.]

The fact that this project would cost (finger in the air) +/-£5 billion end to end is no matter, because the Chancellor’s paying. In the same way that joint top of CBI chief John Cridland’s shopping list is to spend £1+ billion on a tunnel for the A303 around Stonehenge. “The A303 is a key arterial route from the south-west to the metropolis” – connecting in the pounding heart of the UK economy that is Gillingham, Yeovil, Blandford Forum and Shaftesbury – “Just get on with it.” That we might get a good way towards light rail systems for Leeds and Liverpool for the same sum is not a matter for these tunnelling road moles. (And Mr Clegg has been equally forthcoming with his support for SW road schemes as well.)

Now on the day before (Weds 6th Nov) the Northern Futures conference, the reference group for the TransPennine corridor ‘congestion hotspot’ feasibility study had met up for what might be (it wasn’t quite clear) its last meeting in Ashton town hall. Throughout the study process the environmental transport organisations – led by Anne Robinson, Friends of the Peak District and Lillian Burns, CPRE and NWTAR (who fought the previous Mottram-Tintwistle bypass proposal to a standstill and the scheme’s withdrawal), and with myself [Anthony Rae] in reserve for Friends of the Earth – have been asking the difficult questions, such as:
– ‘Have you forgotten about the existence of the National Park?’
– ‘If you’ve just improved the M62 to smart-motorway standard why do you need to also increase the capacity on this other TransPennine corridor?’
– ‘If you want to improve connectivity between Manchester-Sheffield, why not do so sustainably by rail, which is precisely what the Northern Hub investment package is intending to do?’
– ‘If successive road proposals around Mottram have all failed, for very good reasons, why should this zombie resurrection fare any different fate?’
– ’If according to the DfT’s own national traffic model, traffic on the road corridor will have increased very considerably by the design year of 2035 – with then further traffic generated by new capacity at the specific Mottram location – won’t future road congestion and journey times (and of course the amenity of towns along the route) actually be worse than the existing 2014 problem you’re complaining about? Therefore better to consider an alternative, demand managing, option; such as that expertly prepared for the Friends of the Peak District by Keith Buchan of MRTU which you can download here.

[Also read the FPD press statement of 7th November: ‘WE SAY NO! to road building in the Peak Park’] ; and Anne Robinson’s 5th September CBT blog ‘An open letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer: What is the point of the trans-Pennine feasibility study?’]

This study process (like all the others) has been rushed in order to meet the political deadline of the Autumn Statement; the Reference Group was presented with very patchy data for the various options tested, none of it in writing, of which the one with the best journey time savings (but just in the immediate Mottram area) is Package 1: Bypass of Mottram-Tintwistle (including tunnels required under A6018 & north of the bypass) + area-wide interventions; journey time savings of between 7-11.5 minutes as a result of the Mottram intervention; ‘negative’ biodiversity and landscape impacts; cost between £320-470million.

To test whether, in their own terms, such a scheme would produce future traffic level and journey time savings compared to present levels – rather than from Business As Usual levels in 2035, which could be portrayed as a marginal improvement against 20 years of worsening conditions 2014-35 – I’ve asked whether they will provide us with the quantified data (which they have but have not yet disclosed) for these absolute changes. Let’s see if we get a response before 3rd December.