HS2 to Manchester replaced by ‘selection of bits and pieces’

HS2 between Birmingham and Manchester has been replaced by numerous transport projects, including some road improvements as well as railway electrification, a new tram system and an extension of the £2 maximum bus fare. The improvements have been dubbed ‘Network North’ but they include many schemes elsewhere in England as well as some in north Wales and south west Scotland.

The axeing of Phases 2A and 2B of HS2 to Crewe and Manchester by the Prime Minister was widely expected, and his decision was greeted with applause on the last day of the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester yesterday, but there has been widespread criticism of his decision.

Rishi Sunak said: ‘The facts have changed. And the right thing to do when the facts change, is to have the courage to change direction. And so, I am ending this long running saga. I am cancelling the rest of the HS2 project.’

However, the section of Phase 1 between OId Oak Common and London Euston is back on the agenda, although Mr Sunak is making one major reform.

He said: ‘The management of HS2 will no longer be responsible for the Euston site. There must be some accountability for the mistakes made, for the mismanagement of this project. We will instead create a new Euston development zone, building thousands of new homes for the next generation of homeowners, new business opportunities and a station that delivers the capacity we need. And in doing so, for the first time in the life cycle of this project – we will have cut costs. The £6.5 billion of savings that Mark [Harper] and I are making will be taken from the Euston site and given to the rest of the country.’

National Infrastructure Commission chair and former Network Rail chief executive Sir John Armitt said: ‘High Speed 2 was part of a long term strategy with clear objectives to link up some of the country’s largest cities. It had been planned for almost 15 years and under construction since 2017.

‘The decision to stop the legs north and east of Birmingham is deeply disappointing, leaving a major gap in the UK’s rail strategy around which a number of city regions have been basing their economic growth plans.

‘A High Speed 2 route between Manchester and London via Birmingham, alongside Northern Powerhouse Rail, would have enabled increased capacity and better connectivity both north-south and east-west. While it is welcome that the money will be redirected into rail and other transport projects for the North and Midlands, it’s not yet clear how the collection of schemes announced today will address the gap left behind.’

Major HS2 contractors including Arup, Siemens and Mace had launched a last-minute bid to convince Mr Sunak not to cancel HS2 to Manchester, saying savings could be made and private investment found. They were supported by West Midlands Mayor Andy Street, who is a Conservative, but Mr Sunak went ahead with an emergency cabinet meeting in Manchester before announcing that the axe would fall.

Mr Street, who will not be resigning from the Conservative Party, according to reports, said he was ‘very disappointed’. On Monday, Mr Street had said axing the Manchester leg would amount to ‘cancelling the future’, and he has now said he will continue to work with the private sector to see if Phases 2A and 2B could be restarted.

Midlands Connect chairman Sir John Peace said: ‘We are disappointed and disheartened.’ But he added: ‘We must not start from scratch, we must work … to deliver HS2 Phase 1 all the way to Euston. There are also lessons to be learnt from the HS2 story so far. The Midlands Rail Hub and road programmes including the A5 which have been announced today resonate with us. These are our transformational East-West priorities for the region, which we recommended and have been progressing with Government. We are now calling for more detail on timescales and plan of action, and asking for a high-level urgent meeting with ministers.’

The private sector lobby group Rail Partners said the decision ‘will have consequences felt for generations by the rail industry, its supply chain, passengers and freight customers’. Rail Partners chief executive Andy Bagnall continued: ‘While reinvestment in other regional rail schemes is a significant consolation, the decision to reduce investment in rail and divert funds to road schemes feels counterintuitive as we look to attract people to move away from carbon intensive modes of transport.’

Some of the rail projects announced by the Prime Minister include electrification between Selby and Hull and between Crewe and Holyhead. A new station will be built in Bradford, and the Midlands Rail Hub will go ahead, while Cullompton and Wellington stations in Devon and Somerset will be reopened. Also in Devon, the 8km line from Bere Alston to Tavistock will be rebuilt to restore train services between Tavistock and Plymouth. The long-discussed scheme to build a tram system in Leeds is being revived and there will be more extensions to West Midlands Metro, while there will be improvements to Ely junction in East Anglia, which will help rail freight.

Great Western Main Line electrification could be revived to Bristol Temple Meads with the help of a £100 million grant to the West of England Combined Authority, which covers Bristol, Bath, south Gloucestershire and north east Somerset.

On the roads, the £2 maximum bus fare in England outside London will now be continued until the end of next year, and there will be more than 70 road schemes, including upgrades to the A1, A2, A5 and the M6. The A75 to Stranraer will also be improved, and there will be funding for the Shipley bypass and a relief road at Blyth.

Former transport minister Norman Baker of the charity Campaign for Better Transport said: ‘This ragtag and bobtail selection of bits and pieces, some of which no doubt have merit, will not compensate for the hammer blow that has been delivered today. By cancelling the Northern leg of HS2, the Prime Minister has taken much needed rail investment and ploughed it into yet more roads. The roads budget is already bloated, and today’s announcement simply diverts money from a sustainable transport future into unsustainable and unchecked traffic growth.’

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said: ‘The incompetence of successive Tory governments has now cost the taxpayer billions and led to this disastrous decision for Britain's economy, environment and our ailing transport infrastructure. High Speed rail together with a modern expanding public transport network is key to the future of linking every part of our country together, from north to south and East to West.

‘Public transport investment is not an either-or question. The fact is we will not be able to tackle the climate emergency without encouraging people to use modern, cheap and efficient high speed rail and hugely expanded local bus services. The key to thriving economies of the future is to be environmentally sustainable and to interconnect cities, towns and villages to promote economic activity. 

‘The Conservative government is playing political games ahead of an election and instead of investing properly in Britain's public transport and high speed future, Rishi Sunak risks putting the country in the slow lane.’

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