18 September 2023

Ministers accused of ‘rail betrayal’ as they refuse to confirm HS2 to Manchester

18 September 2023

A transport minister continually refused to commit to HS2 reaching Manchester as Labour accused the Government of a “great rail betrayal” and vowed to build the project “in full” if it wins power.

Shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh hit out at reports that the Birmingham to Manchester leg of HS2 could be scrapped, saying it looked as if the Tories were “considering cutting the North of England out in its entirety”.

She argued that the new high-speed route would provide a slower journey between London and Birmingham than the current train services on offer due to it terminating, at least temporarily, in the west of London.

We will build HS2 in full and we will build Northern Powerhouse Rail in full. That’s the clear pledge that we’ve given

Shadow minister Nick Thomas-Symonds later promised that the party would build the line “in full”, including the leg of the journey which was due to run to Leeds, if it wins the next general election.

It comes after The Independent published a photograph last week of a leaked document appearing to show the Government has already spent £2.3 billion on stage two of the railway from Birmingham to Manchester, but that up to £35 billion could be saved by abandoning the phase.

Downing Street has since refused to guarantee that trains will run from the Midlands to the North West as part of the national infrastructure project.

Both proponents and critics of the high-speed route criticised the decision to send junior transport minister Richard Holden out to answer an urgent question on the future of the scheme on Monday.

If this is true, what are we left with? The Tories’ flagship levelling up project that reaches neither the North of England nor central London

Mr Holden, responsible for buses and roads in the Department for Transport, said rail minister Huw Merriman was unable to answer as he was in the Czech Republic on Government business.

Transport Secretary Mark Harper did not make an appearance either, despite having spoken at a conference on electric vehicles in Westminster on Monday.

Facing a barrage of questions in the Commons about whether high-speed trains would ever run to Manchester, Mr Holden would only say that “spades are already in the ground on HS2 and we remain focused on its delivery”.

Labour’s transport spokeswoman Ms Haigh pointed out that, with ministers pausing work on HS2 trains terminating at Euston, the current Birmingham to London route is faster than what commuters might be left with if the track stops at Curzon Street.

“First they slashed Northern Powerhouse Rail, then they binned HS2 to Leeds, then they announced the line would terminate at Old Oak Common for years to come, and now it looks like they are considering cutting the North of England out in its entirety,” she said.

“If this is true, what are we left with? The Tories’ flagship levelling up project that reaches neither the North of England nor central London.

“The most expensive railway track in the world that thanks to terminating in Acton will be a longer journey between Birmingham and central London than the one passengers currently enjoy… A great rail betrayal.”

Later on Monday, Mr Thomas-Symonds told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme: “We will build HS2 in full and we will build Northern Powerhouse Rail in full. That’s the clear pledge that we’ve given. If we do end up in a situation where the Government has spent well over £45 billion on an infrastructure project that isn’t even going to go all the way from Birmingham to London, what an indictment of Tory incompetence and waste that is.”

Asked whether it would run to Leeds, he said: “It’s both Manchester and indeed the eastern leg… to Leeds.”

Mr Harper announced in March that work at Euston would be paused for two years as costs had ballooned to £4.8 billion compared with an initial budget of £2.6 billion, with Old Oak Common in the west London suburbs used as a temporary terminus.

Passengers travelling to and from central London will need to take Elizabeth line services to continue their journey into the heart of the capital.

Facing riled-up MPs, Mr Holden said there was “no question of this Government abandoning the North”, but he repeatedly refused to clarify whether the project would run to Manchester.

He added: “Ministers will continue to update the House regularly on HS2, as we have done throughout.”

The planned railway is intended to link London, the Midlands and the North of England but has been plagued by delays and soaring costs.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is said to have concerns about the project’s budget, with plans reportedly to potentially abandon the Euston leg altogether as part of a drastic cost-cutting exercise.

Ministers have already moved to pause parts of the project.

It was confirmed in March that construction of the Birmingham to Crewe leg of the high-speed railway would be delayed by two years and that services may not enter central London until the 2040s.

During Monday’s urgent question, MPs from both sides encouraged the Government to scrap the project entirely, with Tories Sir William Cash, former Cabinet minister Dame Andrea Leadsom and Sir Michael Fabricant all voicing concerns.

Greg Smith, Tory MP for Buckingham, said the rail scheme was unaffordable and that its construction was causing “human misery” in his constituency.

He said scrapping the Manchester leg would leave a “legless stump” and recommended that “what is left of phase one should be scrapped as well”.

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