News & Reviews News Wire British government axes part of planned high-speed route

British government axes part of planned high-speed route

By Keith Fender | October 4, 2023

Second phase of HS2 project to be cancelled, Prime Minister announces

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Large concrete bridge under construction
Construction in progress on the southern section of the HS2 project includes the Colne Valley Viaduct north west of London, as seen on March 2, 2023. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has announced cancellation of the northern section of the project. Keith Fender

MANCHESTER, England —  In a speech today (Oct. 4) at the annual Conservative Party conference, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced cancellation of construction of the second stage of the planned high speed rail project known as HS2. That segment was to link Manchester and Birmingham.

The decision — if it survives an election due in around a year, which current polling suggests Sunak will lose — will also remove parts of planned new high speed rail service in northern England, which was to share tracks with HS2 near Manchester.

Sunak says the cost of the line had spiraled, leading to over a third of all government transport infrastructure funds being spent on the route. However, critics — of whom there are many — point out the cost increases have been driven by the government delaying decisions and insisting on some of the most expensive railway construction ever, putting much of the line’s southern section in tunnels simply to avoid small numbers of home owners.

Map showing routes and travel times in England
The HS2 plan (solid lines) as it existed in 2021, after elimination of a planned segment to Leeds but prior to the cancellation of the Manchester-Birmingham leg announced Wednesday. (UK Department for Transport)

Costs have also increased dramatically in recent years for other reasons; since the UK left the European Union under Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic, large numbers of European construction workers have left the country and have not returned, leading to much higher labor costs. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and energy price spikes have also led to massive inflation for raw materials such as steel and concrete.

Sunak also argues travel patterns have changed since the pandemic, with high revenue business travel halved on the UK rail system, and that extensive business travel was a key part of the overall HS2 business case. This is true, but ignores the fact that overall, rail usage has rebounded, with much more leisure travel by train. Some routes, including longer-distance routes , are recording record passenger numbers, exceeding even pre-pandemic levels.

The new announcement is just the latest — although the most significant — in several cuts from the original HS2 plan [see “British government changes high speed rail plan,” Trains News Wire, Nov. 23, 2021, and “British government drops another part …,” News Wire, June 20, 2022].

Southern section to go ahead

The southern section of the HS2 project from London to Birmingham, and a connecting line to join the existing West Coast Main Line near Litchfield, will be built as planned. Construction is significantly complete for basic track formation in some places and some tunnels are already finished. The station planned for London Euston will also be built as planned, although under the proposals announced today, this will be completed by a new development company that will also build extensive high-density housing on top of the site. Sale of this housing will fund the station construction.

High speed trainset leaving station with large trainshed
Under the now-axed HS2 plans, the railway town of Crewe was to gain a major new station, upgrading its current facility, which is more than 150 years old. An Avanti West Coast Pendolino EMU is seen at Crewe in September. Keith Fender

The section that has been cancelled is north of the Litchfield West Coast Main Line connection to Crewe and then Manchester, plus an eastern spur to serve the cities of Nottingham and Derby. All of these sections were in the detailed planning stage but no major construction had yet begun.

The UK Transportation department says HS2 trains will run from London Euston to central Birmingham in 49 minutes once the full southern part of the line is complete — 30 minutes faster than now — while trains from Euston to Manchester using the southern HS2 section and then the WCML connector will take 1 hour, 40 minutes, 27 minutes faster than now. Euston to Liverpool via HS2 and the WCML will be possible in 1 hour, 45 minutes, 26 minutes faster than now.

Savings to be re-invested

Yellow light rail train
The decision to axe the northern section of HS2 will lead to money being made available for local transport projects, including light rail expansion in Manchester and a new light rail network for the city of Leeds. A Manchester Metrolink’ light rail trainset is shown in the city center in September. Keith Fender

Sunak claimed in his speech that the £36 billion ($43 billion) saved by cancelling the northern part of HS2 will be re-invested in other transport schemes (rail, road, and light rail), mainly in northern England. Many of the projects listed in detailed documents issued after the speech are existing schemes, although in many cases previously without funding to complete them. On one level, this is good politics, as a series of major projects that are locally important or popular may now go ahead sooner than before (or at all). However, critics point out that the point of HS2 was to create capacity for passengers and freight on the national rail network. The critics also correctly note that a future government might reduce funding for such smaller projects, citing budget pressures.

Sunak also announced £12 billion ($14 billion) of existing funding, which will be committed to the separate proposals to build a high-speed rail line between Liverpool and Manchester. However, this project as previously designed relied on the northern section of HS2 in Manchester. As this is no longer going to be built, it is unclear whether a revised plan is possible under the new, effectively much reduced budget.

Announcement draws criticism

The reaction from politicians in Sunak’s own Conservative Party has been mixed. Two recent former Conservative Prime Ministers, have opposed cutting HS2. Boris Johnson made his opposition clear about a week ago in a newspaper column he writes, and Johnson’s predecessor, David Cameron, stated his opposition after Sunak’s announcement. Sunak’s political opponents have decried the decision, but despite previous commitments to build HS2 in full have not restated that policy — although it is likely today’s cancellation will not be final if there is a change of government in the election due no later than early 2025.

Business leaders across the UK representing major companies had called on the government not to cut the project and business leaders in Manchester, including the major soccer club Manchester United, thousands of whose fans in the south of England would have been likely customers for the new line, have reacted negatively. Some construction business leaders have questioned whether the UK government is a suitable partner for infrastructure investment – arguing the risks of doing business with the British government certainly increased as a result.

12 thoughts on “British government axes part of planned high-speed route

  1. Most succinct summary of the consequences of the change in plans – practical and political – that I’ve seen. Well done, Mr. Fender.

  2. English politics is pretty much like our American political system. Two parties fighting each other Conservatives vs Tories{ Labor Party is the official name} just like our two clown parties here in America Democrats vs Republicans who perform under the big top circus called Congress. Not surprising what is happening in England when you consider that the nation had three Prime Ministers and none of them including the present actor have been able to solve England’s economic or political woes and with labor unrest, social justice issues and inflation at all time highs even worse than here in America. cutting off part of a proposed HSR isn’t going to make much difference in jumpstarting the British economy or helping the citizens of England get back on their feet with decent living conditions or more money in their pockets. If anything do it the democratic way and let the people vote on whether they want this rail line or not by havving a public vote and referendum on this issue and not let some bumbling politicans or political party make the decision based on their personal feelings or likes or dislikes. Let the people and the public decide what is best Not politicans or even that outdated instiitution known as the monarchy and the royal family which is nothing more than public welfare and freeloading at the expense of the British people
    Joseph C. Markfelder

    1. @Joseph Markfelder

      I usuallly agree with you but I have a one word answer “Brexit” vote

  3. Going back to railroading, if leisure travel is your market, you don’t want expensive (expensive to build, expensive to maintain, expensive to operate) high speed rail; you want to supplement the regular service.

    And you don’t need a whole set of new cars; you can supplement the existing stock as needed, replacing when needed.

  4. Good for the Brits. Now, if we can get the Cal HSR project cancelled, we will be as lucky as them. But at least in Britain they will have a viable high-speed line unlike in California that will have a line running from a small town to a moderate sized city with no chance of going any further and will be of little use to anyone.

    1. I’m in the UK right now so I’m exposed to more local up to date in depth news on this matter. It’s been in the news for days at the end of last week and over the weekend. Manchester especially was very peeved at the decision.
      Not mentioned in the above article, another reason for the HS2 is to increase rail capacity, currently just about maxed out with very little room to expand the current network, freight included.
      The motorways are packed and there is no more room for more capacity either.
      This is forward thinking, travelling around Europe is so easy, and fast without the hassle of air travel, under 400 miles it is so much more convenient and humane to travel by high speed rail, when taking airport times into account generally faster.
      Not the answer for LD in North America, too-vast. California not so sure, I haven’t driven there in over 40 years but it was a zoo back then so I’m sure it hasn’t improved.
      Like most government decisions, I’m sure this will be brought back to life by another party at a latter date with much increased cost.

    1. Which is why a new HSR line may be wanted but not necessarily needed.

      England is a crowded country where nothing can be built without severely disrupting th cities and the countryside. It would be like an all-new rail ine from NYC to Philly or to New Haven. Might have to live with what’s already there.

    2. Not so sure in this case that’s the problem Charles, it looks more like money and politics.
      If they can build it amongst London then they can build it anywhere with population density.
      BBCs had lots on it the last few days.

    3. Of course, this verdict is definitely not a pro-rail transport decision. Britain appears to be moving alarmingly away from exemplary European rail policies.

      Dr. Güntürk Üstün

  5. Like wow, the first time this so-called “Conservative” PM has done something toward the center from the extreme left. If it weren’t for his party label “Conservative”, Sunak sounds like Joe Biden, AOC, Bernie Sanders, Liz Warren, or Justin Castreau.

    UK Conservatives will get the message the next election. The message being this: the Tories cannot beat the Labor Party by being the Labor Party. Tories will have a slight chance by offering something different.

    1. another Charles another day blaming everyone but the real culprits. At least Paul Ryan got out quickly when he saw the circus that was coming to town, again the orange guy lost.

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