What does scaling back of HS2 mean for travellers?

Action station? HS2 site at London Euston, where work has been ‘paused’ while the scheme is re-specified (Simon Calder)
Action station? HS2 site at London Euston, where work has been ‘paused’ while the scheme is re-specified (Simon Calder)

The High Speed 2 rail project intended to connect the North of England with the Midlands and London has been scrapped north of Birmingham.

Rishi Sunak made the announcement in his first speech as prime minister at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester.

The PM said: “HS2 is the ultimate example of the old consensus.

“I am cancelling the rest of the HS2 project. And in its place, we will reinvest every single penny – £36bn – in hundreds of transport projects.”

Mr Sunak added later in a statement: “We will deliver HS2 between Birmingham and Euston as planned but we will extend it no further.

“Instead we will take every pound that would have been spent extending HS2 and invest over £36 billion into Network North – a new programme of transport improvements that will benefit far more people, in far more places, far quicker.”

But former prime minister David Cameron said: “HS2 was about investing for the long-term, bringing the country together, ensuring a more balanced economy and delivering the Northern Powerhouse.

“We achieved historic, cross-party support, with extensive buy-in from city and local authority leaders across the Midlands and North of England. Today’s announcement throws away 15 years of cross-party consensus, sustained over six administrations, and will make it much harder to build consensus for any future long-term projects.”

A senior fellow Conservative, Iain Stewart MP – chair of the Transport Select Committee – said: “There will be costs and lost opportunities in not proceeding with HS2 in full. There will also be significant benefits delivered by the new rail and road projects that the PM has announced.”

Among the highlights of the spending spree on piecemeal projects: electrification of key rail lines and reopening several branch lines, as well as a currently disused station, Sheffield Victoria.

“Network North” extends as far south as Kent and Devon for the purposes of spending the HS2 windfall.

What will it all this mean for travellers? These are the key questions and answers.

What was HS2 in the North expected to do?

The legs from Birmingham to Manchester via Crewe and to Leeds via Sheffield were expected to transform travel between the North of England, the Midlands and London.

Travel times from Manchester and Leeds to Birmingham were initially intended to be better than halved from existing journeys, with these key intercity links taking less than 50 minutes.

The proposed travel times to London were 71 minutes from Manchester and 81 minutes from Leeds.

Leeds to Manchester was due to be almost halved to 29 minutes.

The main aim, though, was not so much about speed – but unlocking capacity on the 19th-century rail network bequeathed by the Victorians.

The current semi-high speed trains, which can reach 125mph, devour capacity on the overstretched infrastructure.

By moving intercity passengers to an all-new network, far more room is created to allow more regional, local and freight trains to run.

As the-then transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said in November 2021: “It will create the kind of faster, greener and more frequent rail services that allow people to access many more jobs; make towns and cities more attractive to business; and unlock housing opportunities for many families.

“It will also give confidence to passengers, businesses and investors that historic weaknesses in the regions’ rail network are finally being fixed.”

All stations? Official HS2 map showing the original planned extension from Birmingham to Leeds via Nottingham and Sheffield (HS2)
All stations? Official HS2 map showing the original planned extension from Birmingham to Leeds via Nottingham and Sheffield (HS2)

What will happen instead?

The first phase of HS2 is currently under construction. The line from a new station, Birmingham Curzon Street, will run south – initially to a patch of land in west London known as Old Oak Common. It will be connected with the east-west Elizabeth Line through the capital.

Work on London Euston, the eventual terminus of the line, has been ‘paused’ while plans for the station are re-evaluated. Despite some rumours to the contrary, the final seven miles will be completed – though timing is vague.

HS2 trains north of Birmingham will run on existing tracks to Manchester. The prime minister says journey times between Manchester and London will be cut by 30 minutes, which would give a journey time of 96 minutes.

Is Northern Powerhouse Rail going ahead?

“We will build a new high speed line between Warrington, Manchester and Yorkshire” – that was the pledge by the government less than two years ago.

Mr Sunak promised a line between Liverpool and Manchester will be funded to the tune of £12bn. He said a new “Network North” will connect Manchester with a new station in Bradford in 30 minutes, to Sheffield in 42 minutes and to Hull – on a newly electrified line – in 82 minutes.

In a separate promotional video, Rishi Sunak said the number of trains between Sheffield and Leeds will quadruple. As there are currently five per hour, off-peak, that will mean 20 trains per hour – or one every three minutes.

Look North: Spending freed up by the cancellation of HS2’s northern section will go on projects as far away as Devon and Kent (HM Government)
Look North: Spending freed up by the cancellation of HS2’s northern section will go on projects as far away as Devon and Kent (HM Government)

Other rail projects?

The most intriguing plan in the government’s official list of improvements is the resurrection of Sheffield Victoria station – closed in the 1970s – as the hub for two reopened lines: to Stocksbridge, northwest of the city, and south to Chesterfield via a new station at Staveley in Derbyshire.

In County Durham, the Leamside Line will reopen, connecting the East Coast main line to the Newcastle to Sunderland line, running via Washington.

In Cumbria, the coastal railway between Carlisle, Workington and Barrow will be improved. It is now called the Energy Coast Line and will be enhanced to a half-hourly service between Carlisle and Whitehaven.

In the north and east Midlands, lines from Stoke to Leek, Oswestry to Gobowen and Burton to Leicester will open.

The previously announced Midlands Rail Hub will connect 50 different stations. Sir John Peace, chairman of Midlands Connect, said: “We are now calling for more detail on timescales and plan of action, and asking for a high-level urgent meeting with ministers, to ensure these plans and the benefits for the Midlands are delivered as quickly as possible.

“We are disappointed and disheartened by the HS2 announcement. We must not start from scratch, we must work at pace to deliver HS2 Phase 1 all the way to Euston. There are also lessons to be learnt from the HS2 story so far.”

In the southwest, plans to open stations at Cullompton and Wellington – between Taunton and Exeter on the Great Western line – will proceed. Tavistock, north of Plymouth, will get its station back.

Local transport?

The government says it is “improving connectivity in all six Northern city areas”. It promises: “Nearly £4 billion to improve connectivity, which could pay for schemes such as the extension of the Manchester Metrolink to Heywood, Bolton, Wigan and Manchester Airport and bus rapid transit corridors in Manchester.’

The West Midlands Metro will be extended.

A West Yorkshire tram network is promised: “Leeds will no longer be the biggest European city without a mass-transit system, with up to seven lines potentially created as part of a transformed network, eventually linking Leeds to Bradford, Halifax, Huddersfield, and Wakefield.”

The £2 maximum bus fare in England will be retained until December 2024 at least, cancelling a planned rise to £2.50 next month. Graham Vidler, chief executive of the Confederation of Passenger Transport, representing the bus and coach sector, said: “We welcome the further funding for bus fares in England. This will help make buses more attractive for passengers during a cost of living crisis.

“However, the government is giving the sector mixed messages through its imagined war on motorists. It has been two years since the National Bus Strategy claimed there should be bus lanes wherever required. The government is now undermining the few that are already in place.

“We must move away from a procession of short-term fixes and instead build a long-term sustainable settlement to unlock the economic, net zero and social wellbeing potential of buses. The continued absence of a funded long-term plan is undermining the confidence of industry to invest, and deterring passengers from choosing to use the bus.”

On the roads?

Some trunk roads will be improved:

  • A1 – dualling a section of the A1 between Morpeth and Ellingham in Northumberland.

  • A2 – improving Brenley Corner near Canterbury, the junction where the roads to Thanet and Dover diverge.

  • A5 – between Hinckley and Tamworth.

  • A50 – between Stoke and Derby.

  • A75 – “pinch points” between Carlisle and Cairnryan (ferry port for Northern Ireland) will be remedied.

  • A77 – “further investment” between Stranraer and Glasgow.

  • M6 – “further investment” in Cumbria.

More than £500m in funding will be provided for two major road schemes around Manchester, including a new link road between the M62 and the M60.

There will be £300m for nine smaller road schemes in the Northwest, including the A582 South Ribble Distributor, Kendal Northern Access Route and the Wigan East-West Route.

“We will fund the Shipley bypass, the Blyth relief road and deliver 70 other road schemes,” the prime minister added.

A £3.3bn road resurfacing fund for the North will “fix potholes causing misery for drivers”.

Louise Haigh, Labour’s shadow transport secretary, tweeted: “Sunak promised to upgrade the A1, A2, A5 and M6. Yet all of these projects were:

  1. Already announced

  2. Delayed by up to five years only six months ago by none other than Rishi Sunak.”

Anything else?

Yes. The transport secretary, Mark Harper, says: “I’m calling time on the misuse of so-called 15-minute cities.”

The idea is that basic services for education, health and leisure should be within 15 minutes of any home on foot or by bike, in the hope of cutting motor traffic.

Mr Harper said: “There’s nothing wrong with making sure people can walk or cycle to the shops or school, that’s traditional town planning.

“But what is different, what is sinister and what we shouldn’t tolerate is the idea that local councils can decide how often you go to the shops, and that they ration who uses the road and when, and they police it all with CCTV.”

The Independent has asked the Department for Transport for details of councils misusing the concept of 15-minute cities to “decide how often you go to the shops”.

Is everyone happy?

No. Darren Caplan, Railway Industry Association chief executive said: “The government cites cost as its main reason for scrapping Phase 2, yet it should be remembered that this was the Government’s own scheme, built to its own specifications, and that the chopping and changing of the scope and timing of the project – adding considerably cost and delay – was entirely of the government’s own making. Every time the scheme is rescoped it increases the cost.

“Scrapping HS2 Phase 2 is simply unnecessary and squanders the full benefits of Phase 1. The government can work with metro mayors, the railway industry, rail suppliers, and other stakeholders, to agree a cost-effective way forward, including encouraging private investment to take pressure off the public purse.

“Today’s nuclear option is defeatist and sends a terrible signal to potential overseas investors that the UK simply cannot deliver large national transport infrastructure schemes.

“This also blows a hole in the government’s levelling-up and decarbonisation agendas – none of the replacement regional schemes referred to will have the same impact of building the HS2 in full.”

Mick Lynch, general secretary for the RMT union, 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.”

Mick Whelan, general secretary of the train drivers’ union, Aslef, said: “That Rishi Sunak has chosen to announce, in Manchester, that his government is killing HS2, turning his back on the North, and is no longer interested in levelling up, is, almost, beyond parody.

“He is, yet again, selling Britain short. This is bad news not just for the railway, and the economy, but for Britain. The sooner he takes his helicopter home - the last chopper out of Saigon - the better for Britain.”

Why is the PM taking the flak of cancelling HS2 just before an election?

Mr Sunak is not a fan of rail: earlier this year he halved Air Passenger Duty on domestic aviation, encouraging a move from rail to air.

But this is all about the next election. The purpose and benefits of HS2 has been so poorly explained by successive governments that it is regarded by most of the electorate as a waste of money. Mr Sunak’s speech at the Tory conference will have helped to cement that view.

Transport is regarded by Conservative campaigners as a rich source of political selling points.

Over the past few weeks the PM has announced that he is scrapping transport proposals that did not exist – such as compulsory car sharing and “new taxes to discourage flying”.

The prime minister believes the pledges on redirecting HS2 spending on local projects will give his party an edge over Labour. Promising that the money “saved” by not building HS2 beyond Birmingham will be spent on local projects has, presumably, been focus-group tested – allowing Tory MPs to trumpet the new projects in the coming election and claiming that Labour would scrap them.

All figures on journey times and quotes by Grant Shapps are taken from his Integrated Rail Plan