Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has confirmed rumours that the government will scrap the projected rail connection between Birmingham and Manchester.
After weeks of speculation, Sunak confirmed the scrapping of “the rest of the HS2 project” during his closing speech at the Conservative Party conference, held in a former train station in Manchester.
Sunak explained his decision to scrap any HS2 connection that is not in the London–Birmingham leg as a result of changing circumstances and rising costs. The move goes against the warnings of former prime ministers, political allies, regional mayors and businesses.
“I say to those who backed the project in the first place, the facts have changed,” Sunak said. “And the right thing to do when the facts change is to have the courage to change direction.
“So I am ending this long-running saga. I am cancelling the rest of the HS2 project.”
HS2 was a central part of Boris Johnson’s levelling-up agenda, designed to improve rail connections between cities in the Midlands and the North with London. It was given the go-ahead in 2020 despite a decade of sharply rising costs and repeated delays to the original project timeframe.
In HS2’s place, Sunak pledged to invest “every single penny” saved – an estimated £36bn – in “hundreds of new transport projects in the North and the Midlands”.
“Every region outside of London will receive the same or more government investment than they would have done under HS2, with quicker results,” he said.
The flurry of transport pledges include protecting the £12bn Manchester and Liverpool link – without high-speed trains – building a Midlands Rail Hub connecting 50 stations, extending the West Midlands Metro, bringing back the Don Valley line and upgrading the A1, A2, A5 and the M6. He also promised to keep the £2 bus fare.
One new initiative is a project called Network North, which would “join up our great towns and cities in the North and the Midlands”. It consists of a fully electrified line that would carry trains from Manchester to Hull in 84 mins, to Sheffield in 42 minutes and Bradford in 30.
Sunak said: “No government has ever developed a more ambitious scheme for northern transport than our new Network North.”
He also confirmed that the HS2 line will end at Euston, but announced that the Euston project will be run by a new management team, pledging to ensure there is “accountability for the mistakes made, for the mismanagement of this project”.
The building of the HS2 Euston station has been delayed by two years and its costs have sharply risen after what was described by MPs as a “completely unrealistic” cost assessment. HS2 trains were originally scheduled to run in 2026, but they are now not expected to run into Euston until 2041 at the earliest.
During the speech, Sunak addressed the Conservative West Midlands mayor Andy Street, who has been vocal in his support of the project. Sunak acknowledged they had different views on HS2, but said they “can work together” to ensure quicker trains and more capacity between Birmingham and Manchester.
Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham said there was “frustration and anger” and complained that people who live in the North are treated “as second-class citizens when it comes to transport”.
Laurence Turner, head of research and policy at the GMB union, said scrapping HS2 would “send a shockwave through the construction industry and railway supply chain, costing hundreds of jobs”.
“We can’t rebalance the economy or fix the railway capacity crisis without HS2,” he added. “It’s essential that the planned route is now protected so that a future government can reverse this disastrous decision.”
Last week, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that scaling down the plan would constitute “Treasury-driven nonsense”, while former chancellor George Osborne and ex-deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine agreed that the move would mean “abandoning” the North and Midlands.
Labour’s shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh said: “The Conservatives promised Northern Powerhouse Rail 60 times and in three consecutive Conservative manifestos.
“After this Tory fiasco, why should anyone believe the Tories can deliver anything they say?”
Last month, HS2 began assembling the project’s longest ‘green tunnel’, which will be covered by earth, trees and shrubs in a bid to help it blend in with the Northamptonshire countryside.
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