Northern leg of HS2 will be cancelled, Grant Shapps confirms

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UK prime minister Rishi Sunak will announce the cancellation of the northern leg of HS2 in his Conservative conference speech today, defence secretary Grant Shapps has confirmed.

The comments from Shapps are the first public recognition by a senior government figure that the high speed rail line will be scaled back and only built from London to Birmingham to cut the ballooning costs of the project.

Other train lines will continue to service existing routes from the capital to Manchester and Leeds.

Ministers had previously argued that a new high speed line was needed to increase capacity on Britain’s rail network. Under the revised plan, HS2 trains will compete with other operators for limited track north of Birmingham.

The plan to axe the project’s northern leg, first leaked a month ago, has prompted anger from former Conservative prime ministers, former chancellor George Osborne, current Tory mayor of the West Midlands Andy Street, and many civil leaders in northern England.

Shapps said that scaling back the project would free up tens of billions of pounds to spend elsewhere.

The headline price tag for the scheme was set to rise from £72bn to £91bn as a result of adjustments for inflation, according to calculations by the Financial Times.

That figure excluded the proposed eastern leg of the project from Birmingham to the East Midlands, which was expected to add as much as £8bn to the final cost.

Shapps admitted Sunak’s decision might not be popular but, he said, it showed the prime minister was prepared to consider tough decisions.

“HS2 trains under any of these circumstances would run to Manchester. Indeed, they’re actually going run to Leeds as well . . . the journey time will be dramatically faster than it is [now],” he told Times Radio. “But not as fast as that second part of [the] high speed [rail]”.

Sunak is expected to confirm that HS2 will run into London’s Euston station, after chancellor Jeremy Hunt launched a successful rearguard action to stop the line terminating at Old Oak Common, six miles from the city centre.

Government insiders said Hunt had fought to ensure it continued to a purpose-built terminus at Euston, not only on economic grounds, but also because of the damage to Britain’s reputation if the route terminated in the London suburbs.

The prime minister is expected to convene his cabinet to “rubber stamp” his HS2 plan before his speech to party members in Manchester.

Sunak will claim in his speech that scrapping the final section of the project between Birmingham and Manchester proves he is prepared to make “difficult decisions” in the national interest.

He will also announce funding for new transport links, with government insiders confirming that any cost savings from HS2 would be reinvested in road, rail and bus projects.

Sunak has accepted that his decision will be controversial and his allies fear that Street might quit. “Andy will do what he will do,” said one. Street has declined to say whether he will resign.

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