HS2 West Midlands to Manchester Rail Link to Be Abandoned

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is poised to declare the cancellation of the HS2 high-speed rail connection stretching from the West Midlands to Manchester. During his speech at the Conservative Party Conference, scheduled for later today, the PM is anticipated to outline various substitute initiatives in Northern England and Wales.

He is likely to argue these projects will be better value for money and can be delivered more quickly.

It comes after weeks of speculation about the future of the line.

Appearing on BBC Breakfast Defence Secretary Grant Shapps confirmed a new high-speed rail line would not be built to Manchester but said HS2 trains would still run to the city and to Leeds, albeit on existing tracks.

The London to Birmingham leg of HS2 has already started to be built.

Mr Shapps, who was transport secretary under Boris Johnson, said there would “still be a much faster journey time” to Manchester.

However, he said that changes to travel patterns following the Covid pandemic meant the government had to consider whether whether the “billions of pounds” for HS2 could be better spend on other projects.

He added that full details of alternative transport schemes would be set out in the prime minister’s conference speech in Manchester later.

The reports have already prompted anger among local leaders and businesses.

The Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, accused the government of “disrespecting people across the whole of the North”.

“It just proves there are so many people in politics – many in the Tory party – that think they can treat the north of England differently to the way they treat other parts of the country,” he told BBC Breakfast.

The Conservative West Midlands mayor Andy Street, who on Monday called an impromptu press conference to warn Mr Sunak that getting rid of HS2 would amount to “cancelling the future”, is said to be distraught by the news of the prime minister’s decision.

The football club Manchester United was among 30 businesses which wrote to the prime minister urging him to commit to the line and avoid “economic self-sabotage”.

It was hoped HS2 would cut journey times, create more space on the rail network and boost jobs outside London.

However, there had been concerns about the mounting costs of the infrastructure project, with the latest estimates for the project amounting to about £71bn.

But, that was in 2019 prices so it does not account for the spike in costs for materials and wages in recent months.

If Mr Sunak announces that HS2 trains will go to Manchester using existing tracks, it follows that no extra space would be created and journey time benefits would be reduced.

In recent days, there have been suggestions that instead of building HS2, money could be put towards improving east-west rail links across the north of England.

For example, Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) aims to improve connections between Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool.

HS2 West Midlands to Manchester Rail Link to Be Abandoned

However, the project has been designed to intersect with HS2, using a section of the high speed line, and if HS2 does not continue to Manchester this would increase the costs of NPR.

Henri Murrison, chief executive of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership (NPP), called the scrapping of the HS2 line “a national tragedy here in the north of England, economically at least”.

“In 100 years the economy of the North will be smaller because of this decision,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Nicola Headlam, who was head of NPR until 2019, said it “beggars belief” that a decision has been made to “leave us with 19th Century infrastructure while we’re trying to leap forward to the 21st Century”.

A group of Conservative MPs, called the Northern Research Group, have called for a line connecting Liverpool to Hull, which they’ve named “the Charles Line” after the King.

The route was initially proposed in 2010, and given the go-ahead in 2012, when then-Transport Secretary Justine Greening called it “the most significant transport infrastructure project since the building of the motorways”.

There have already been delays, disruption, a big cut to HS2’s Eastern leg, and salami slicing on HS2 – but this latest decision would change the project and its outcomes beyond recognition.

At least £22.5bn has already been spent building the London-Birmingham section, while £2.3bn has gone towards the second phase, on things such as buying up land and property.

Thirty-thousand people are already working on HS2, mostly in the supply chain.

There are also people whose lives have already been uprooted by property purchases along the planned HS2 route north of Birmingham.

Mr Sunak will be delivering his conference speech at a tricky time for the Conservatives, who have been lagging behind Labour in the polls for over a year.

Speaking from the Manchester Central Convention Complex – an old railway turned into a conference venue – he will tell the audience that he is the man to “fundamentally change our country”.

This is expected to be his final conference speech before the upcoming general election, slated for 2024. Sunak’s team is optimistic that the speech could potentially alter the political trajectory of both the prime minister and his party.

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