British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is scrapping part of the HS2 high-speed rail line construction. At a Conservative Party conference, he announced to give up the link between Birmingham and Manchester. The 36 billion pounds it will release will be spent on “hundreds of new transport projects in the North and Midlands, across the country.”
Once a cornerstone of his party’s promises to spread prosperity to the north of England, the ambitious high-speed railway line will link London and Birmingham, the biggest city in the Midlands, but will thus no longer continue to Manchester as was initially intended.
Facts have changed
According to Sunak, citizens benefit more from new transport links in the north than from the fast link connection that would only be available in Manchester “in two decades.” He promises to build light rail networks and tram systems in the north and improve highways there.
Moreover, the High Speed 2 project cost had “more than doubled,” he said. “To everyone who was initially behind the project: the facts have changed.” And when that happens, “it is best to have the courage to change direction,” Sunak added.
Europe’s biggest infrastructure project
The high-speed rail line, given the green light by the British parliament in 2013 and considered Europe’s biggest infrastructure project, was supposed to connect London to other cities in the north of England.
For example, it would’ve cut journey times from Manchester to the capital by almost half to just over an hour. Now, the high-speed line will end in Birmingham, 113 km from Manchester, where the new trains will be forced to run slower along already congested lines.
Costs out of control
But a decade later, it appears that the costs have completely run over budget. Originally projected to cost 32,7 billion pounds, the project has since risen to over 100 billion. These are very complex works, requiring tunnels, diversion of watercourses, and sometimes very expensive land expropriation. And there are the managers’ expenses, compensations, and environmental issues, which also play a role. For example, the project’s CEO remains the UK’s top-earning official.
A 2018 study commissioned by the UK government also found that costs are up to eight times higher than average compared to high-speed rail internationally (250 million pounds per km versus 32 million pounds per km).
Following a review in 2019, then Prime Minister Boris Johnson already decided to scrap the link between Birmingham and Leeds in the north-east of the country after previously shelving plans to also open up to London’s Heathrow Airport.
Sunak confirmed that the much-discussed fast rail line will run to Euston in central London rather than terminating at Old Oak Common in the capital’s western suburbs.
The trains for the London-Birmingham link will be provided by a consortium of France’s Alstom and Japan’s Hitachi. For 2 billion pounds, they will deliver the “fastest train in Europe.” It should be able to reach an operational speed of 360 km/h – elsewhere in Europe, no faster than 320 km/h is driven on high-speed rails.
Wrong decision, says Cameron.
Local leaders have reacted angrily to reports that the billion-dollar would be canceled. According to Andy Burnham, the mayor of the Greater Manchester City region, the decision is disrespectful to residents across the north.
David Cameron, the former Conservative prime minister who defended HS2 in 2013 as an “engine for growth,” wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, that Sunak’s decision was “the wrong one,” adding, “In years to come I suspect many will look back on today’s announcement and wonder how this unique opportunity was lost.”
According to an industry expert, quoted by PA news agency, scrapping HS2 north of Birmingham to invest in alternative transport projects will not solve the fundamental problem with the UK’s rail network.
“The fundamental problem with our rail network in and around the major conurbations is that there are real capacity constraints largely driven by having lots of different kinds of trains on the same lines. The point about HS2 was that it was transformational and a game-changer.”