Challenged on why he had “failed the North’s railway passengers so badly” – amid anger over plans revealed by The Independent to scale back the much-heralded high-speed rail line – he replied: “There have obviously been challenges on the rail network more generally. And it’s across the country because of the pandemic.”
In the excruciating round of interviews with local BBC radio hosts, Mr Sunak refused repeatedly to commit to building the high speed rail network north of Birmingham – and instead suggested fixing potholes was “priority number one”.
The PM said there were “spades in the ground” on phase one of the project, but refused to say whether he was committed to phase two, whichThe Independent revealed Mr Sunak and Jeremy Hunt are considering scrapping to save cash.
The prime minister repeatedly highlighted his focus on building better connections between northern towns and cities, investing in local transport such as bus services and making sure potholes are filled.
But, asked for a “yes or no” answer on whether he would scrap HS2’s northern leg, the PM said: “I am not not speculating on future things.”
And challenged over the state of Britain’s rail infrastructure by BBC Radio York, Mr Sunak blamed problems with train services on the pandemic.
Presenter Joanita Musisi highlighted operators being stripped of their franchises and being taken into state control. She said: “Why have you failed the North’s rail passengers so badly?”
Mr Sunak replied: “There have obviously been challenges on the rail network more generally.
“And it’s across the country because of the pandemic, and the government ploughed in billions and billions of pounds to keep our services running.
“When you have a pandemic and everyone stops travelling on the rail network that makes life very difficult and people can understand that.”
The Railway Industry Association (RIA) on Monday pointed to Department for Transport (DfT) figures showing that from April 2022 to March 2023, overall rail passenger numbers were the same as in 2012, when the UK Government first confirmed support for HS2.
RIA chief executive Darren Caplan said: “One of the reasons cited by critical politicians for scrapping HS2 Phase 2 is that passenger numbers are significantly down and people will not travel by train in future.
“This is plain wrong... today's passenger levels are already significantly higher than when the business case for HS2 was approved, and have been growing back strongly since the pandemic.”
Speaking to BBC West Midlands, he said “what is important” is “that we are investing in the transport that they use every day”. Mr Sunak said the government is working to make sure roads are free of potholes and that bus services are “reliable and frequent”.
In a brutal exchange with BBC Radio Manchester’s Anna Jameson, she said: “We are straight talking people in the North. It is a yes or a no, are you scrapping the HS2 line between Birmingham and Manchester.”
Mr Sunak said: “Like I said, I’m not not speculating on future things. We have spades in the ground right now and are getting on.”
Ms Jameson said: “Is it under review?”
He said: “The government is always making sure that we get value for money out of everything we do but that’s just a statement of the obvious.
“But I think what people also should know, because I know there’s a lot of focus on this one thing, but actually what are the journeys that people use most in Greater Manchester or across the north? It’s in their cars right now getting to work taking their kids to school making sure that the roads are free of potholes.
“That’s priority number one.”
An exasperated Ms Jameson said: “We are not talking about potholes, the main story right now across the country is people want to know about the future of HS2 and still now you can’t give me a yes or a no. You are the main in control. You have the keys. You can tell us now if it is happening.”
Mr Sunak said: “My point to you is that the vast majority of the journeys that people make are in their cars, making sure that we make sure our roads are well maintained is really important.”
She interrupted: “But we are talking about trains, we are not talking about cars.”
In one of the biggest political stories of the year, The Independent revealed Mr Sunak was in secret talks – dubbed Project Redwood – with his chancellor to scrap the second phase of the project.
After the story broke on 14 September, Downing Street repeatedly stone-walled before ministers accepted talks over the most dramatic decision in years to stop a £34bn infrastructure spend were taking place.
The story has prompted unprecedented fallout, with two former prime ministers attacking Mr Sunak amid a cascade of criticism and cabinet divides. Boris Johnson and David Cameron were joined by ex-chancellor Philip Hammond in urging the PM not to cut the high-speed rail route.