Abandoning HS2 to north would be a ‘mistake’, Rishi Sunak warned

Rishi Sunak has been urged to make up his mind and commit to completing HS2 after political, business and transport leaders reacted with anger to The Independent’s revelation that the project’s second stage could be scrapped.

George Osborne led a chorus of voices warning that abandoning the line would be a “mistake” – with a senior rail industry source telling The Independent the move would effectively kill plans for other promised rail upgrades in the north of England.

It came as Downing Street repeatedly refused calls to confirm the government was still committed to taking the line into Manchester as promised.

During a dramatic briefing of journalists in Westminster, the prime minister’s spokesperson said the government would need to balance the interests of “passengers and taxpayers” when asked whether the northern leg could be shelved amid spiralling costs and delays.

Mr Osborne, who championed the high-speed rail project in government, said that abandoning the line would be “a real, real tragedy”.

“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,” he said on his new podcast Political Currency, in response to The Independent’s story.

“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?”

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.

“If you cancel this leg that is 13 years of work, preparation … then you’re basically saying nothing is going to be built.”

A senior rail industry source also expressed fears over what the “back and forth” over HS2 plans could mean for other northern transport projects. They told The Independent: “The government needs to make up its mind one way or another.

“Cancelling HS2 north of Birmingham is not only a waste of the money it has already spent on Phase 2, but it also hugely diminishes the value of Phase 1 that is now halfway towards completion.

“It would also signal the end of Northern Powerhouse Rail, as over 20km of Phase 2 track will eventually be shared.

“At a time when we should be encouraging a shift from lorries to freight trains, and domestic air to rail, more back and forth over the HS2 link suggests the government just isn’t serious about net zero by 2050.”

The Independent revealed on Wednesday that Mr Sunak and Jeremy Hunt are in discussions about scrapping the second stage of the HS2 rail project.

A cost estimate seen by this publication shows that the government has already spent £2.3bn on stage two of the high-speed railway from Birmingham to Manchester but shelving the northern phase would save up to £34bn.

The HS2 map

The documents, discussed at a meeting at No 10 on Tuesday and headlined “chancellor and prime minister bilat”, suggest the £2.3bn is now not recoverable even if it is cancelled. The Independent understands talks are ongoing.

Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham said ministers saw northern passengers as “second-class citizens” and derided repeated Tory promises to invest in the region.

“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,” he said.

“The result? The southern half of England gets a modern rail system and the North left with Victorian infrastructure. Levelling up? My arse.”

Documents about the project were discussed at a meeting at No 10

Construction work on HS2 near Lichfield

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