HS2: Now Manchester faces the axe
Eastern Leg no more. Euston no more. Now the The UK government is considering even more cutbacks to the HS2 high-speed rail project. With Leeds, Sheffield and Nottingham already off the timetable, now the prestige Manchester link is in line for the chop. With a critical national budget just over two months away, the future of Britain’s high-speed rail project, HS2, hangs in the balance. Sources within Downing Street have confirmed that top level government officials have met to discuss potential further cutbacks to one of Europe’s major infrastructure ventures.
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his Chancellor Jeremy Hunt convened on Wednesday to address mounting concerns regarding escalating costs and delays to the HS2 project, designed to provide a high speed railway between London and Birmingham, and to be the spine of a twenty-first century network for Great Britain. However, with the project vastly over budget, and the government’s coffers empty, there seems little prospect that HS2 will not suffer another round of cutbacks.
The sharpest cutbacks yet leave Manchester out in the cold
HS2 as a concept has been beset by controversy and difficulty. Despite the enormity of the project, managed by a company founded specifically to complete it, the railway has been dogged by rising costs and resistance. Protestors have slowed the works and powerful political lobbying has forced expensive concessions on the project, including extensive tunnelling and redesign work. Now however, with costs likely to exceed one hundred billion pounds (116 billion euro), a Downing Street spokesperson has admitted the need to strike a balance between the interests of passengers and taxpayers. Under questioning they refrained from providing a guarantee for the proposed rail line connecting Birmingham and Manchester.
The Prime Minister’s office, Number Ten Downing Street, did confirm that ministers are exploring the possibility of “rephasing” the project, which entails extending the construction timeline to alleviate annual building costs. However, this could lead to services not commencing until late in the decade or even the early 2030s.
Already, the line’s extension northward to Crewe and Manchester has experienced setbacks, with the cancellation of the Golborne Link to the West Coast Main Line. Most significantly, the ‘Eastern Leg’ serving Nottingham, Sheffield, and Leeds, along with a potential link to the East Coast Main Line, has been cancelled in the sharpest of the cutbacks.
Government incompetence chastised in vitriolic interview
Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham voiced his concerns, emphasising the potential imbalance between the north and south of the country. “Why should it be the North of England that pays the price?” Burnham queried, questioning whether this approach aligns with the government’s “Levelling Up” policy aimed at bolstering economic productivity in northern regions. He said that the project was promised as the ultimate example of levelling up, by providing the north of England with the most modern adn advanced railway in the country. What is now lilely, he said, is the exact opposite.
Emily Thornbury of the opposition Labour Party expressed her dissatisfaction with the Conservative Party’s handling of the project, highlighting years of financial investment and little progress. “After 13 years, they [the ruling Conservative party] are incapable of getting HS2 to Euston and they seem to be incapable of getting HS2 to northern cities”, she said in a vitriolic interview for BBC radio.
Dickensian debacle as HS2 faces the worst of times
HS2 is already well behind schedule. In March, Transport Secretary Mark Harper announced a two-year delay for the construction of a new station at London Euston due to rising costs. The station’s final design remains undecided, with some voices even suggesting it may never come to fruition. In Camden, the neighbourhood of central London most affected by the building works for the central London terminus, there is outrage at the disruption caused by the railway project. Many have compared it to the destruction of the nineteenth century Camden, when the first railway project cut through the area without mercy.
Costs associated with HS2 have surged far beyond the original budget of 33 billion pounds (39 billion euro) set a decade ago. Initially, HS2 was slated to connect London to Birmingham, subsequently branching into two sections leading to Crewe and Manchester in the north west; and Nottingham, Sheffield and Leeds in the north east. However, plans were revised two years ago, limiting the line to the original terminus in Birmingham, and a short branch to the East Midlands instead of proceeding to Leeds.
A spokesman for the High-Speed Rail Group, representing various business stakeholders, decried the potential scrapping of phase two as a “disaster” for the North of England and the Midlands, labelling it an “ultimate U-turn.” They called for the government to dispel speculation and affirm its commitment to delivering the project as originally planned, asserting that the thousands of individuals involved in the HS2 endeavour and future generations deserve nothing less. However, with a string of cutbacks and cancellations already behind it, hardly anyone is proclaiming HS2 beyond Birmingham’s Curzon Street.