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.
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.
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
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.