The prime minister has been warned that abandoning HS2’s second leg would be a “mistake” and a “tragedy” amid reports the government is poised to scrap the line’s second stage.
HS2 is intended to greatly reduce north-south intercity journey times, while releasing capacity for local train services on existing lines.
The project is expected to be completed in stages from 2029 onwards, however it was originally due to open in 2026.
The line is also beset by delays and rising costs and the Independent has reported that Sunak and chancellor Jeremy Hunt are understood to have reviewed £30 billion potential “savings” that could be made by scrapping parts of it at a meeting on No.10 on Tuesday.
A cost estimate of the project seen by the paper suggested the government has already spent £2.3 billion on stage two of the high-speed railway from Birmingham to Manchester and that shelving the northern phase would save up to £34 billion.
Former chancellor George Osborne, who was a key supporter of the high-speed rail project in government, commented on the reports on his new podcast with Ed Balls Political Currency.
He said: “It’s a mistake. Yes, we’ve got to get costs under control – and we’ve got to ask why other countries in Europe can build high-speed lines much more cheaply than we can,”
“But there’s a much bigger point here which is: are we prepared to take the difficult, long-term decisions which are controversial on infrastructure to provide for our country’s future?”
“If you cancel this leg that is 13 years of work, preparation … then you’re basically saying nothing is going to be built.”
He went on: “HS2 will transform connectivity to the north of England and it would be a real, real tragedy if this government abandoned it.
Rishi Sunak’s spokesperson yesterday repeatedly refused calls to confirm the government was still committed to taking the line into Manchester as promised.
Shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh said: “The Conservatives crashed the economy and now they want the North to pay the price. Their chaotic mismanagement has hit jobs, harmed growth, and cost taxpayers even more.
“Labour will call time on 13 years of failure, and deliver the infrastructure fit for the century ahead”.
Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, also reacted to the news, saying: “It’s coming up 10 years since [George] Osborne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ speech and the Tories are set to scrap the last of his rail pledges”.
“The result? The southern half of England gets a modern rail system and the North left with Victorian infrastructure. Levelling up? My a**e.”
He added: “Government is guilty of gross mismanagement of HS2 and of making the North pay for their failure. Once again, passengers here are seen as second-class citizens.
“The North-South divide is no accident. It’s national policy. It’s only by waking up to that fact that we can begin to understand the level of change Westminster, Whitehall and our entire political system needs.”