Prime Minister Boris Johnson today gave the green light to HS2, the new high speed rail route linking London, Birmingham and eventually Manchester and Leeds, despite fierce opposition from some of his own MPs.
The go-ahead for the £106 billion line – costs have ballooned to more than three times the original estimate – ends months of speculation that the biggest infrastructure project in the UK for decades was facing the axe.
Mr Johnson, making the announcement in the House of Commons, said the Government “had the guts” to deliver a “fundamentally wonderful project” that would bring prosperity across the country.”
He also said that integration between HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail’s proposed improvements to the east-west rail route connections key north of England cities.
Welcoming the announcement, Blackley and Broughton Labour MP Graham Stringer urged the Government to deliver jobs to the north west by starting to build HS2 “from the north to the south”.
Stage one of the route linking London Euston to Crewe via Birmingham is due for completion between 2028 and 2031.
Stage 2, enabling 250mph trains to reach Manchester, Wigan and Leeds is scheduled to be completed by 2035-40.
The new route would cut journey times between Manchester Piccadilly and London by an hour – from the current 127 minutes to just 67 minutes.
But the argument for HS2 is not all about speed; far from it. The real benefits will stem from increasing capacity and overcrowding on congested existing rail routes.
Switching high-speed long distance services to a dedicated new route will free up space on existing lines to improve local train services and offer extra capacity for the movement of freight.
Project bosses in Manchester say that the space released by HS2 could more than double the number of seats on trains leaving Piccadilly for Crewe and Stoke-on-Trent during the evening rush hour.
Today’s announcement pledged that HS2 would be built in its entirety, but plans for the Stage 2 legs to Manchester and Leeds – still in very early stages of development – will be subject to a further review to find ways of cutting costs.
As things stand, the western leg of HS2 from Crewe is planned to continue north to pass between Winsford and Middlewich in Cheshire.
Between the M6 and and M56 a spur off the main line would run east and enter a seven-mile tunnel and call at a new Manchester Airport station before terminating at MS2’s proposed new four platform terminal at Manchester Piccadilly.
Meanwhile the main line would continue north to join the existing West Coast Main Line near Wigan.
Despite their welcome for the HS2 green light, Greater Manchester’s leaders stressed that priority should also be given to Northern Powerhouse Rail’s (NPR) proposals for major improvements on the east-west line linking the major cities in the north of England.
Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham called at weekend for HS2 and the NPR line to built simultaneously and since the former wouldn’t be completed until 2040, said that HS2 engineers should be reassigned to work on the east-west line.
After the announcement, Mr Burnham told Sky News. “The focus on east-west as well as north-south is something I very much wanted to hear. So it was very good as far as it went. We would say that that we need answers to some pretty big questions.
“What is the timetable for this rail improvement in the north? We didn’t hear that. What’s the design for Manchester Piccadilly? We still have major concerns about what is proposed.”
He added: “We need to see more detail on these issues, but overall, it’s not a day to score points. Overall this was a very positive statement by the Prime Minister.”
On the review of Stage 2 of HS2, Mr Burnham said he would not accept a gold plated railway from London to Birmingham and a silver plated – or worse – route from Birmingham to the north.
“But having said that, there is now talk of bringing HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail together in High Speed North.
“That is the right move and we think it creates the opportunity to get the right solution at Piccadilly which prioritises east-west connectivity which is probably the thing that matters most to people here.”
Sir Richard Leese, Leader of Manchester city council, said: “It is welcome news that some of the uncertainty around the vital HS2 project has been alleviated, however we continue to wait for absolute clarity around the northern section of the line to Manchester and Leeds, which remains under review.
“HS2, together with improvements to east-west connections through a wholly integrated Northern Powerhouse Rail, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rebalance the nation’s economy towards the North and help address decades of under-investment in our transport infrastructure.
“It will provide essential capacity for the future, it will stimulate regeneration and help create thousands of new jobs. HS2 must be completed in full – as promised – and we need to get on with it now to ensure the optimum benefits are delivered at the same time as delivering shorter term improvements like Piccadilly platforms 15 and 16 needed so that our currently clogged railways can survive.”
Manchester Airport put out a statement following the announcement, saying that delivering an integrated High Speed North rail network will fast-track the rebalancing of the economy.
“The station at Manchester Airport, acting as a hub for the new network, will ensure millions more people across the North and the Midlands have access to high speed rail services and international markets,” said the statement.
“MAG welcomes the Government’s decision today. Planned correctly, HS2 together with High Speed North will provide an integrated high speed rail network direct from Manchester Airport to Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Hull and the North East, and unleash the full potential of the Northern economy.
“The sooner High Speed North can be delivered, the better. Starting on its delivery quickly would mean that the North, as well as the South, benefits from new rail connections and capacity as soon as possible.”
Responding to the Prime Minister’s announcement, Barry White, chief executive of Transport for the North, said: “The green light to get on and build HS2 is the right decision for the UK. It is an ambitious and significant step forward in releasing the Northern economy from the straightjacket of poor infrastructure that has held it back for so long.
“Benefits to the North’s communities need to be delivered as quickly as possible and we’re determined to push ahead and get spades in the ground here.
“We need an integrated plan and committed investment pipeline for the North that delivers in years, not decades. We welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to quick progress and we’ll work with Government to drive this forward.
“Building on this ambitious step today, we want to see full commitment to Northern Powerhouse Rail in the National Infrastructure Strategy due to be published on budget day – the most transformational solution connecting our major towns and cities from Liverpool to Hull and the North East.
“Doing so would slash journey times in the North, spark economic growth and reduce the nation’s carbon footprint.
“Crucially, the decisions must now be led by the North.”