UK: Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has announced the cancellation of the parts of the High Speed 2 rail programme not already under construction.

Rishi Sunak

UK: Prime Minister Rishi Sunak used his speech to the annual Conservative Party conference in Manchester to formally announce a further scaling back of the High Speed 2 project which had been intended to create a high-capacity north-south route linking London with cities in the Midlands and north.

Speaking on October 4, Sunak confirmed speculation that Phase 2 between the West Midlands and Manchester via Crewe would no longer be taken forward. ‘I am cancelling the rest of HS2’, he said; this is expected include the proposed spur running east from the Phase 1 route at Water Orton to meet the Midland Main Line near East Midlands Parkway.

Sunak’s announcement means that of the 540 km ‘Y network’ initially planned by the government in 2010, only the 190 km Phase 1 linking London with Birmingham and a junction with the West Coast Main Line near Lichfield is now confirmed as going ahead; construction is ongoing.

‘False consensus’ behind HS2

In his speech, Sunak said that ‘a false consensus has taken root that all that matters are links between our big conurbations. This consensus said that our national economic regeneration should be driven by cities, at the exclusion of everywhere else. It said that the most important connections those cities could have was to London and not anywhere else. And it said that the only links that mattered, were north to south, not east to west.

‘All we really need though, is better transport connections in the north, a new Network North that will join up our great towns and cities in the north and Midlands I wanted to come here to Manchester today to say that this will be our priority’, he announced.

Explaining the volte-face, he said ‘HS2 is the ultimate example of the old consensus. The result is a project whose costs have more than doubled, which has been repeatedly delayed and it is not scheduled to reach Manchester for almost two decades. And for which the economic case has massively weakened with the changes to business travel post-Covid.

‘And so I’m ending this long running saga. I am cancelling the rest of the HS2 project and in its place and in its place, we will reinvest every single penny in hundreds of new transport projects in the north and the Midlands across the country.’

Euston revised

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak used his speech to the annual Conservative Party conference in Manchester to formally announce a further scaling back of the High Speed 2 project

Prior to Sunak’s speech, there had been fierce speculation that the London end of the line would also be cut back from Euston to Old Oak Common in the western suburbs; work on this segment of Phase 1 has been paused in recent weeks.

However, with construction of Old Oak Common station well in hand and its design not suited to terminate more than a few trains per hour, Sunak confirmed that Euston would be retained as the central London station. But he said that management of the station works would be taken away from HS2 Ltd, amid an expectation that the site for high speed services will now be substantially smaller.

Integrated Rail Plan

In November 2021, the government had dropped plans to build most of HS2’s Eastern Leg to Leeds and a junction with the East Coast Main Line south of York, favouring instead its Integrated Rail Plan to enhance east-west links between Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and the northeast.

Costed at £96bn, IRP also promised a section of new main line between Warrington and a junction west of Huddersfield. It also said proposals would follow for a ‘line of route’ upgrading of the East Coast Main Line between Edinburgh and London, but no details of either scheme have since been published.

In his speech on October 4, Sunak promised more investment in a ‘Network North’ of regional rail and road links to replace the cancelled sections of HS2.

Freeing up capacity on all three principal north-south main lines radiating from London had always been a key tenet of the strategic case for HS2, but it is unclear how these benefits can now be realised under Sunak’s plans.

Manchester still stuck

Ahead of Sunak’s speech, Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary Louise Haigh shared sections of the IRP documentation on social media, which set out the severity of the capacity problems around Manchester in particular.

In June, infrastructure manager Network Rail withdrew a long-standing planning application for development of more infrastructure near Piccadilly and Oxford Road stations to enhance capacity across the city. NR’s former Managing Director, North West & Central Region, Tim Shoveller explained at the time that the ambitions of the Manchester Hub enhancement programme launched in 2010 ‘could no longer be delivered’.

Work by the pan-industry Manchester Rail Task Force in 2021 found that there had been a 72% increase in rail journeys to and from central Manchester in the 20 years from 2001. However, none of the main approach routes to the city feature grade separated junctions, adding to the operational complexity of the local rail network.

Local leaders had seen HS2 as providing a long-term solution to this problem by removing many long-distance trains to their own infrastructure; the risk of this no longer being realised has prompted severe criticism of Sunak’s decision