Rishi Sunak has refused to confirm whether the HS2 line from Birmingham to Manchester will be scrapped, despite widespread speculation he will cancel it due to soaring costs.
The prime minister, in Manchester for the Conservative Party conference, said: “I know there’s a lot of speculation on HS2. All I would say is the way I approach this job, I take a look at the facts, I take my time to get the decision right on behalf of the country – whatever it might be – and that’s what I’ll do with this, as I do with everything else.”
On BBC Breakfast, he said: “As you saw with my recent decision on net zero, when I make a decision that I think is important of course I go and explain that to everyone, explain why I’m doing what I’m doing, why I thought it was right to change direction there.”
“If that happens and is necessary, of course that’s what I’ll do," he added.
His comments came after Downing Street denied any final decision had been made on Phase 2 of the project – after ITV News political editor Robert Peston broke the news that the Manchester leg of the line would be scrapped.
News of the supposed decision to ditch Phase 2 of the project came shortly before Jeremy Hunt was due to speak at the Conservative party conference in Manchester.
Earlier, the chancellor had been asked about HS2 and questioned why delivering the high-speed line is costing vastly more than similar projects in Europe.
Hunt told broadcasters: “What we know is for this country to succeed, we need prosperity to reach every corner of the country. We need the right infrastructure, including roads and railways.
“We’ll announce the decision on HS2 when it’s been formally made. But as chancellor, I do have to answer the question as to why it costs 10 times more to build a railway in this country than just across the Channel in France.”
Last month, former chancellor George Osborne and ex-deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine warned Rishi Sunak: "Governments are remembered for what they build and create.
"Make this mistake and yours may only be known for what it cancelled and curtailed.”
Work on the project at Euston Station has been paused, meaning Old Oak Common in west London will be the only HS2 hub in the city when services to and from Birmingham Curzon Street begin between 2029 and 2033.
READ MORE ON HS2:
- HS2 decision signals rail project going ‘off-track’ (Herald Scotland)
On Monday, Sky News reported that the Department for Transport (DfT) has worked up a package of alternative projects – rail, bus and road schemes – which could be funded from money saved by scrapping the Manchester to Birmingham leg.
But Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, accused the government of treating people in the north of England as "second-class citizens" with regards to HS2.
And Tory mayor of the West Midlands Andy Street made an impassioned last-ditch appeal to the PM not to cancel the link between Birmingham and Manchester.
He did not rule out resigning over the issue, and said: “You will be turning your back on an opportunity to level up – a once-in-a-generation opportunity.
“You will indeed be damaging your international reputation as a place to invest.”
Watch: Northern leg of HS2 to Manchester will be scrapped
Speaking at a fringe event at the Conservative Party conference, he said: “This will be remembered as the conference when they pulled the plug on us.
“What gives them the right to treat people here in Greater Manchester and the north of England as second-class citizens?"
The first phase between London and Birmingham was supposed to open at the end of 2026, but this has been pushed back to between 2029 and 2033. The second phase, originally scheduled to open in 2032, was then put back to 2040, before having its completion apparently shelved altogether.
The delays and U-turns of the beleaguered HS2 project:
The then Labour government sets up HS2 Ltd to look at the case for building a high-speed railway line.
HS2 is given the green light by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, despite concerns about its cost and its impact on the environment. It has an initial budget of £32bn.
The projected cost of delivering HS2 rises to £42bn.
The House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee notes that the new projected cost for HS2 is £56bn.
The National Audit Office warns the project is already under financial strain and could be delayed by a year.
The government announces a review of HS2 which will analyse whether it should continue to go ahead, with the Department for Transport promising a “go or no-go” decision by the end of that year.
The review will be led by former HS2 Ltd chairman Douglas Oakervee.
Later that month, the BBC reports the government and HS2 bosses knew the project was over budget and behind schedule three years previously in 2016.
HS2 Ltd chairman Allan Cook says HS2 may not be completed until 2040 and could cost as much as £88bn.
The Oakervee Review is delivered and finds that costs have ballooned even more, projecting an overall cost of £106bn.
However, the report finds that the project should continue.
That same month, the National Audit Office accuses the government of underestimating the complexity of the project, saying it is impossible to say with certainty just how much the final cost of HS2 could be.
Despite the concerns, prime minister Boris Johnson gives another green light to HS2, approving the entire line.
MPs say the HS2 project has gone “badly off course” and that further increases in costs cannot be ruled out.
The all-party public accounts committee accuses the Department for Transport of hiding information about delays and cost overruns.
Formal construction on HS2 begins, with Johnson saying it is an “incredible” project and “crucial for our country”.
MPs say there is “no clear end in sight” to the cost and delays of HS2.
The Public Accounts Committee said it is “increasingly alarmed” about key parts of the project.
The government says that dealing with anti-HS2 protests has cost the high speed rail project up to £80m.
Johnson tells the Conservative Party conference in Manchester that his government “will do Northern Powerhouse Rail, we will link up the cities of the Midlands and the North”.
The government is accused of committing a 'great robbery' as transport secretary Grant Shapps confirms that the eastern leg of HS2 to Leeds has been scrapped.
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said Northern Powerhouse Rail – the name given to proposals for an east-to-west high-speed train line across the North – had been “a fraud”.
A £3bn branch of the HS2 network designed to speed up rail journeys between London and Scotland is quietly ditched by ministers, provoking outrage from rail industry groups.
Transport Secretary Mark Harper announces the delay of the Birmingham to Crewe leg of HS2, blaming increased costs and inflation.
In a written statement to MPs, Harper also confirms the government will be prioritising HS2 services between the Midlands and Old Oak Common outside central London, meaning commuters from Birmingham to the capital will have to continue their journeys from the western suburbs using the Tube, adding journey time.
Harper's announcement does not appear to give a definitive date of when HS2 will be completed so people can travel direct into London Euston.
Sunak is reportedly considering delaying or scrapping the Birmingham to Manchester leg of HS2.
Senior Tories George Osborne and Lord Heseltine warn Sunak that doing so would be a "gross act of vandalism".
But former transport secretary Grant Shapps said it would be "crazy" and "irresponsible" for the government not to reconsider the project as costs continue to rise.
ITV and Sky News report that the second leg will be scrapped to cut consistently spiralling costs.
Watch: Labour Party want to see HS2 completed in full