The end of the line?
In what seems to be the punchline to a very long and expensive joke, Rishi Sunak is allegedly gearing up to announce the cancellation of HS2 – a decade-long headache for the government which, it now seems, could be terminal.
Announced in 2013, HS2 was originally envisaged as a high-speed train route linking Manchester and London via Birmingham, with interchanges expanding out to serve Nottingham, Crewe and Manchester Airport, and connecting into the existing the rail network.
However, the project has been cut back substantially since its inception. Linkages to HS1 (St Pancras-Calais) and Heathrow were dropped at an early stage, followed by the eastern leg connecting Birmingham and Leeds in late 2021. Now, fresh rumours this week suggest that the line will no longer reach Manchester and in London, terminate at Old Oak Common.
Reactions have been predictable, and as always seems to be the case with UK infrastructure, deeply divisive. Supporters of the project have warned that further cuts to the project would be ‘a tragedy’, a ‘betrayal’ and ‘economic self-harm’, while others have pointed to the rapidly spiralling costs of the project, arguing that the money should be reinvested into metropolitan centres.
To get insight on the ground, we asked members of the SEC Newgate team living ‘along the line’ for their opinion on the news:
David Hopps, Manchester
HS2 was primarily intended to close the north-south divide (‘levelling-up’, in modern speak). Cancelling the northern leg from Birmingham to Manchester would be a hammer blow to the north of England. Promises of additional rail infrastructure spend in the north should be in addition to, not instead of, a high-speed link to London.
Without the link to Manchester, HS2 risks becoming a symbol of the UK’s failure to deliver a large infrastructure project and further confirms a perceived bias (particularly in the minds of northern voters) towards the southeast of England.
Henry Columbine, Birmingham
From a government that made levelling up its flagship campaign, it feels like a betrayal that cancelling any element of the most significant infrastructure project set to benefit the regions for centuries is even being considered.
Of course, the costs are astronomical, but Britain’s railways have suffered from underinvestment for years and various studies have shown that investment in infrastructure projects stimulates economic growth. The West Midlands has already seen thousands of jobs created and record levels of investment on the promise of HS2 and this is just a taste of what the project could offer the UK regions.
This is not just a question of shaving a few minutes off journey times. It’s about upgrading our railways to match our European cousins and create more reliable services; increasing capacity – including enabling smaller lines and stations to reopen; reducing dependency on cars; and bringing our cities closer together so that opportunities can be distributed more evenly.
The UK has faced enough criticism in recent years: Brexit, the Truss/Kwarteng mini-budget and – more recently - delays to green targets coming into force. We don’t need a U-turn on HS2 to further compound our problems.
Vincent Carroll-Battaglino, London
Rumours and educated guesses abound about the future of HS2. Old Oak Common might be a growth area but it’s unlikely anyone who doesn’t live in suburban west London will want this to be the HS2 terminus. Having to go into central London just to go out is a perpetual pain, but this is worse for most.
For Londoners, the fatal flaw in HS2 may well have been in its founding principle. We already didn’t see the point of knocking 10 or 20 minutes off already quite quick journeys. Now, starting or finishing out of town adds that back on. I can’t see the appeal for customers to use this new line, then. If we go ahead with this without the central links, we could see an overdue overbudget but chronically underused line.
There’s another point. The area cleared to the west of Euston for the extra tracks in is extensive, and includes a much-loved pub, The Bree Louise. Now its demolition and that of other buildings in the area have been for nothing. Campaigners are vindicated but too late, after the deed.
For Labour this is slightly difficult. The leader, as an MP in Camden, delivered a petition against HS2, probably never thinking it wouldn’t happen and decisions would still be needed with Labour on the brink of power. Faced with the decision now, what would he do? Follow through given the money spent, cut back to preserve short-term “fiscal credibility”, or cancel the whole thing? There is credible criticism either way. Which means there’s also hay to be made of the government’s mess either way.
The UK is by no means unique in its difficulty with delivering large pieces of infrastructure. However, among our European neighbours, it’s clear that we have the most ground to make up.
As a general election comes quickly around the corner, the next government faces the challenge that others in the past few years have managed to avoid: having a full five-year term to fill (and a critical one at that).
For now, Rishi faces a challenging conference in, of all places, Manchester.