Why UK PM Sunak axed part of high-speed rail link HS2

Rishi Sunak has cancelled the northern leg of the HS2 high-speed rail project, citing ballooning costs and mismanagement.

HS2 Britain
A road sign is seen as construction continues of the HS2 high speed rail project, near Amersham, England, the United Kingdom [Toby Melville/Reuters]

UK’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has announced that the northern leg of the long-awaited high-speed rail network, HS2, that was expected to connect the capital London to northern city of Manchester covering a distance of 530km (330 miles) will be cancelled.

In his closing speech at this year’s Conservative Party conference in Manchester, the British prime minister blamed doubling of costs for the decision that has drawn criticism both from his party, as well the opposition Labour Party, which had launched the project.

To lessen the blow, Sunak unveiled Network North, where he will pump $43.6bn into other existing transport systems including road, rail and buses.

So what is HS2 and why is it overshadowing the Conservative Party conference?

(Al Jazeera)

What is HS2?

HS2 or High Speed 2 is a train service first proposed under a Labour government in 2009. Its purpose was simple: to boost connectivity between the UK’s north and south, and in doing so help social regeneration. It would also free up crowded motorways and cut down on car emissions.

Running on both existing railway lines and high-speed lines which were to be built, the $45.6bn project considered itself to be the “largest infrastructure project in Europe”.

With bullet trains travelling at speeds of up to 225mph (362kmph), HS2 was expected to stretch for 530km (330 miles) from London through to Birmingham a major city in the middle of the country, From there it was to extend into northern towns and cities including Crewe, Manchester and Leeds. A possible connecting link to Scotland was axed in 2022.

HS2 Britain
A person passes a representation of an HS2 station on a perimeter hoarding around the HS2 high-speed rail line construction site at Euston in London [Toby Melville/Reuters]

Is there an HS1?

Yes, there is. HS1 has been running since 2007, a 110km (68 mile) stretch from central London’s St Pancras International station all the way to the Channel Tunnel on the UK’s southeast coast. It has opened up the UK to mainland Europe, with more than 20 million passengers a year travelling to Paris, Amsterdam and Brussels.

Is HS2 being completely scrapped?

No, it is not, but it is being scaled back because of rising costs.

Previous Conservative leaders including former Prime Ministers Theresa May and Boris Johnson have been advocates of the project, but Sunak himself has remained a sceptic amid high inflation and the cost of living crisis.

Ballooning costs – started by the fallout from the 2008 financial crash and heightened by Brexit and COVID-19, have meant there is less money available for government spending, giving the UK prime minister the chance to pull the brakes.

The original estimated budget for the project was approximately $45.5bn, but the budget overshot to more than $120bn and the completion date was pushed beyond 2040 from the initial 2016.

Project mismanagement, said Sunak, along with construction issues, rising costs have led to the delays.

In his speech on Wednesday, he announced the Manchester leg of HS2 would be scrapped as the project has been draining the economy.

Has any part of HS2 already been built?

Yes, work began in September 2020, and the first phase of the project is set to start running in 2030 – it would connect a London station – Old Oak Common – to Birmingham in the Midlands.

A connection to Euston, one of London’s central rail hubs, was due to open between 2031, but this phase of the project has been further delayed due to mismanagement, which Sunak has said will now be handled by another company.

Reducing travel times to just 40 minutes, HS2 trains will eventually run on new track between Euston and Birmingham, with the train continuing to Manchester on existing track.

HS2 Britain
A general view of HS2 construction site at Cappers Lane Compound, in Lichfield [Carl Recine/Reuters]

What is the alternate plan?

Sunak said scrapping HS2’s northern leg will free up $43.6bn with every single penny spent on “hundreds of new transport projects in the north and the Midlands and across the country”.

“Network North” he says will provide better transport connections in the north, and over a quicker timeline than HS2 would deliver.

Under his new plan, every region outside of London will receive more investment with quicker returns, the prime minister said.

Freeing up funding from HS2, the Conservative government believes, will be used to build and invest in hundreds of other schemes to boost connectivity across the country – including resurfacing roads, improving existing motorway routes, and maintaining the two-pound ($2.43) bus fare cap across the whole country.

Where does Labour stand on HS2?

They are in favour of the project.

Last week, Labour Mayors from across the country made a joint statement, saying if the project did not go ahead the government would be leaving “swathes of the North with Victorian transport infrastructure that is unfit for purpose”.

And although Labour leader Keir Starmer has criticised the government for failing to deliver on levelling up, he has not made it clear where the party stands on HS2 plans.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies