U.K. Unveils £96 Billion Rail Plan Amid Outcry Over HS2 Leg
The U.K. government announced a 96 billion-pound ($130 billion) overhaul of the rail system in the Midlands and northern England while scaling back plans for high-speed links, drawing criticism that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s “leveling up” agenda has been fundamentally undermined.
Unveiling the package in Parliament Thursday, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps Shapps confirmed the scrapping of the HS2 line’s extension to Leeds in Yorkshire and retreated from a promise to build a wholly new fast line from there to Manchester. But he said the overall package will “transform” services across the region and deliver improvements a decade sooner than promised.
The Integrated Rail Plan is a cornerstone of Johnson’s bid to prove to his new backers in former “red wall” seats -- Labour heartlands in northern England that switched to the Tories in the 2019 general election -- that he’s serious about delivering prosperity to all of the U.K. The aim is to upgrade local services and speed journey times and capacity to London and across the north.
But pulling the plug on much of the eastern leg of HS2 has upset some local leaders and Conservative politicians. There’s also fury that the east-west Northern Powerhouse Rail route will get a new high-speed line only part of the way, with upgrades to older track required to complete the trip.
Shapps said the changes will deliver value for money, after the estimated cost of HS2, Europe’s biggest infrastructure project, spiraled beyond 100 billion pounds, and that they’ll mean faster services are delivered quicker with only a negligible impact on journey times compared with the original proposals.
The minister said the government will look at the best way to eventually take HS2 trains to Leeds. A new-build east-west line linking northern cities was considered, he said, but would have made journeys between Leeds and Manchester only four minutes faster at a cost of an extra 18 billion pounds.
The opposition Labour Party’s spokesman on transport, Jim McMahon, accused Shapps of having sold out northern communities.
“There’s no amount of gloss, no amount of spin that can be put on this,” he said in the House of Commons. “What we’ve been given today is a great train robbery.”
Huw Merriman, a Conservative member of Parliament who chairs the House of Commons transport committee, warned that residents of some northern towns may feel short-changed by the plans.
“The prime minister promised that HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail was not an either/or option and those in Leeds and Bradford may be forgiven for viewing it today as neither,” he said. “This is the danger in selling perpetual sunlight and then leaving it to others to explain the arrival of moonlight.”
Another Tory MP, Kevin Hollinrake, said the retreat from previous plans has cost Bradford a “regeneration opportunity” on a par with that enjoyed around London’s King’s Cross station in previous years.
Change of Direction
Northern Powerhouse Rail
Later on Thursday, more than 30 business leaders and politicians in northern England -- including the mayors of Greater Manchester West Yorkshire -- sent a joint letter to Johnson criticizing the “pared-back” plan and demanding a free vote in Parliament.
The prime minister, though, defended the plans as “massive, massive gains” that represent the “biggest package of infrastructure investment” for the Midlands and North in a century. The investment will foster “the same type of confidence about their daily lives, about their commute, as people have been used to for a century in the south,” he told the BBC.
Phase 1 of HS2, between London Euston and Birmingham in central England, is already under construction, while the rethink doesn’t affect Phase 2a, taking the line onward to the junction station of Crewe, or western leg of Phase 2b terminating in the northern metropolis of Manchester.
Transport think-tank Midlands Connect said it saw “a lot of positives” in the revised blueprint, including direct HS2 links into Derby and Nottingham rather than a hub outside the cities. It urged the government to “move as quickly as possible to get spades in the ground and bring benefits to local people.”
Some conservationists also praised the changes, with the Wildlife Trusts saying the cancellation of the Leeds leg will “save vast swathes of natural wild places,” while restating its opposition to HS2 in principle as an “environmentally catastrophic project.”
HS2 has also been politically divisive because of its route through ancient villages and woodland, though the most sensitive work in districts such as the Chiltern hills in southern England, opposed by many local Tories, is well advanced and unaffected by the modifications.
Shapps said hybrid legislation concerning the rest of HS2 will be brought forward next year, while a decision on the award of a rolling stock contract -- which envisages trains running at 225 miles an hour -- will be made “soon.”
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.