Cancelled: HS2: Britain’s High Speed Rail Problem

Its official; the UK government has cancelled the Birmingham to Manchester HS2 link. Prior to this announcement, the East Midlands to Leeds route was already abandoned, leaving little hope that HS2’s initial plan of connecting London with Leeds, Birmingham, and Manchester was ever going to be fulfilled.

HS2 is the name for the UK’s zero carbon high-speed railway service and a huge rail investment in the North of England. It was first explored in 2009 by the Labour Government after the success of HS1, a line that runs from St Pancras International in London to the channel tunnel, offering routes to Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam.

In 2012, HS2 was viewed as moving forward with a parliamentary bill launched in 2013. The project hit a roadblock in 2016 when the National Audit Office cautioned the government on the enormous budget of the project and potential delays in the construction. However, HS2 started work in 2017 after the bill received royal assent. In 2019, concerns were once again raised about delays to HS2 and the project going over budget. PM Boris Johnson, however, sought to continue moving forward with HS2 in 2020.

Construction has already begun on HS2 with London being linked to the West Midlands. As the cost of HS2 soared, and the Birmingham to Manchester link had already been delayed and the government no longer publicly guaranteed that HS2 would link up with Manchester.

Responding to the rumours that HS2 would not connect with his town, the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham has said that “scrapping HS2 rips the heart out of Northern Powerhouse Rail” and that it would leave the North with Victorian infrastructure. Burnham also stated that it would make the north-south divide worse and it would conflict with the government’s promise of levelling up. Burnham and leader of Manchester City Council Bev Craig planned to write to PM Sunak to express their concerns over the cancellation.

Burnham is not the only mayor in the north concerned. Steve Rotheram, mayor of Liverpool, South Yorkshire’s Oliver Coppard, West Yorkshire’s Tracy Brabin, and London mayor Sadiq Khan met on Wednesday 27th September 2023 to discuss HS2. They put out a joint statement prior to the meeting where they said,

“This government has said repeatedly that it is committed to levelling up in the Midlands and North. Failure to deliver HS2 and NPR will leave swathes of the North with Victorian transport infrastructure that is unfit for purpose and cause huge economic damage in London and the South, where construction of the line has already begun”.

In addition to this, bosses at 21 industrial businesses have written to Sunak begging him not to scrap the Manchester link of HS2. These businesses include Heathrow, British Steel, Siemens, and Aecom.

Regardless of the pleas, Rishi Sunak has confirmed that his government has scrapped the northern leg of HS2 from Manchester to Birmingham. In his announcement, which was made at the Conservative party conference held in Manchester, the UK Prime Minister stated that HS2’s value proposition was underpinned by assumptions which were no longer valid and criticised the project’s “spiralling” costs.

In its place, the government has announced £36 billion in road, bus, and other rail projects in the North of England with the objective to “radically improve travel between and within our cities and towns, and around our local areas”.

Was cancelling the northern leg of HS2 the right choice? Well, the government seems to think so. Yet, criticism of the decision remains rife both beyond and within the government’s own party.