HS2 Manchester Leg: A Risky Proposition?

HS2 Manchester Leg

A decade ago, on a spooky Halloween night, UK MPs voted to invest a hefty £37.5 billion in a high-speed railway project, known as HS2, connecting London to Birmingham, with branches extending to Manchester and Leeds. Fast forward to the present, and it appears that completing this ambitious project by 2033 is a distant dream. Instead, we may see only a 140-mile section connecting relatively distant stations outside central London and Birmingham.

HS2’s Troubled Journey

Passengers arriving in London will find themselves at Old Oak Common, quite far from the original Euston terminus. Traveling in the opposite direction, you’ll reach Curzon Street, a 15-minute walk from Birmingham New Street, the primary rail hub for the Midlands. Unfortunately, the eastern spur from Birmingham to Leeds has been canceled, leaving the possibility of a future government reviving it.

The Birmingham to Manchester section is now under scrutiny, with reports suggesting that Chancellor Rishi Sunak might cancel it. The irony is that this decision could be made during the Conservative Party conference in Manchester – right when a train strike is scheduled. Talk about timing!

The exact cost of completing the Manchester leg remains shrouded in mystery. Despite frequent updates, the numbers are still based on 2019 prices. A conservative estimate for the London to Birmingham phase is £45 billion, and for the western leg to Manchester, it’s projected at £13 billion to £19 billion. However, some sources claim the final bill could soar to a staggering £150 billion.

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The Political Dilemma

Now, let’s delve into the political conundrum faced by Rishi Sunak. Although businesses largely support HS2, public opinion is mixed. YouGov polls since 2019 consistently show ambivalence, with 26% neither supporting nor opposing it, 18% tending to support, and 16% tending to oppose. More people seem to dislike it than love it, with 20% strongly opposing and only 8% strongly supporting the project.

This lukewarm public support for HS2 isn’t surprising given that rail travel remains a minority choice in the UK, with the majority commuting by bus or car. However, what truly irks people is the feeling that their regions are being short-changed. HS2 was a flagship project for the “northern powerhouse” concept, and it’s now part of Boris Johnson’s “levelling up” agenda.

What’s the Alternative?

If HS2 is scrapped, what does the North have to show for over a decade of Conservative rule? Some vocal but arguably underpowered metro mayors and a few small-scale local projects. Critics argue for redirecting the funds towards improving local rail links, but building a new line would actually free up the existing network for more local services. Upgrading an existing line isn’t a quick fix either, as seen with the ongoing transpennine route upgrade, announced back in 2011.

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Another proposal is “northern powerhouse rail,” an east-west line from Liverpool to Hull, but its viability relies on HS2, particularly the shared high-speed track.

Conclusion

With public funds under immense pressure, the temptation to scrap such an expensive project is evident. However, before Rishi Sunak makes such a decision, he must present a compelling alternative for the North. Will voters believe in this alternative? That’s the million-pound question.

In a recent statement, Grant Shapps, a cabinet minister, argued against endless spending on HS2, highlighting the escalating costs. He emphasized the need to reevaluate priorities, especially in the wake of unforeseen events like the COVID-19 pandemic and the Ukraine conflict.

As the fate of the HS2 Manchester leg hangs in the balance, the government faces a complex decision that could reshape the UK’s infrastructure landscape. Whether it’s a wise move or not remains to be seen.

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