In his speech to the Conservative Party Conference on 4 October 2023, the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced that HS2 will run only from London to the West Midlands.

He confirmed that the rest of the project beyond the West Midlands will be cancelled, allowing the Government to “reinvest” £36 billion in ‘Network North’ transport projects instead.

Despite this, the HS2 Phase 2b Bill has been re-introduced in Parliament for the 2023–24 session so that part of the route can be used for Northern Powerhouse Rail.

This Insight looks into the background of this decision, Parliament’s role, and what may happen next.

What’s happening with HS2?

HS2 was originally planned to be delivered in three phases (shown in the map below):

Map: Commons Library

What has changed?

The Government has now cancelled Phases 2a and 2b. Phase 1 will still go ahead, and includes new stations at Old Oak Common, Birmingham Interchange and Birmingham Curzon Street, as well as a link to the existing West Coast Main Line near Lichfield in Staffordshire.

In a change to previous plans, the Government is looking for private investment to fund the HS2 station at London Euston, and the line to Old Oak Common. This is similar to the model used for the Northern Line Extension to Battersea Power Station.

The Network North Plan notes that Euston station will now have a smaller footprint, which could release land for development. There will now be six platforms, though the Government previously planned ten platforms.

Why did the Prime Minister cancel parts of HS2?

In his conference speech, the Prime Minister identified the following reasons for cancelling Phases 2a and 2b:

[HS2] is a project whose costs have more than doubled, which has been repeatedly delayed and it is not scheduled to reach here in Manchester for almost two decades…

…and for which the economic case has massively weakened with the changes to business travel post Covid.

The Department of Transport’s six-monthly report to Parliament in June 2023 estimated that the cost of Phases 1, 2a and 2b West would be between £53 billion and £71 billion (2019 values), excluding the cost of Phase 2b East.

What is happening with relevant HS2 legislation?

Legislation for Phase 1 and Phase 2a has already been passed, and the construction of Phase 1 is around 40% complete. However, this legislation provides powers, not a duty, to complete the relevant works. The Government does not need to repeal it if it chooses not to proceed with part of the project.

However, the Hansard Society, an independent charity publishing political research, said the Government could choose to repeal them to reduce uncertainty and avoid cluttering the statute book.

The High Speed Rail (Crewe-Manchester) Bill for Phase 2b West is currently before Parliament, having been reintroduced for the 2023–24 session.

What has the reaction been to this announcement?

Industry bodies such as the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport have criticised the HS2 decision as a missed opportunity to increase capacity and decarbonise the transport network. Previous Prime Ministers David Cameron and Boris Johnson said the move signalled that the UK could not take long-term decisions.

However, some residents along the cancelled phases have praised the decision, saying it will avoid further disruption and save money, while Staffordshire County Council has welcomed the additional new transport investments the decision might enable.

What will replace the cancelled phases of HS2?

The policy paper Network North contains an illustrative list of projects that could replace the cancelled phases of HS2. It consists of a mix of road upgrades, road maintenance, rail upgrades, and bus and light rail schemes. These are spread across the north of England and the midlands, as well as national projects.

On 9 October the Prime Minister said local leaders will have a say these projects: “ultimately it will be for locally elected leaders to decide how to spend what will be a very significant increase in funding”.

What does this announcement mean for related rail projects?

The cancellation of HS2 Phase 2b will impact Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR), which was intended to use part of the HS2 Phase 2b route between High Legh (west of Manchester Airport) and Manchester Piccadilly (shown in the map below).


Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) is a programme of strategic rail investments designed to improve connectivity between cities and towns in the north of England. This includes some new high-speed lines. NPR was announced as part of the 2021 Integrated Rail Plan for the North and Midlands.

Despite the Prime Minister’s cancellation of HS2 Phase 2b, the High Speed Rail (Crewe – Manchester) Bill has been re-introduced in the 2023–24 parliamentary session.

The Department of Transport’s most recent six-monthly report to Parliament (November 2023) said it is “considering [the Bill’s] future as we look to deliver NPR, or any alternative that local leaders may agree, as quickly as possible, as outlined in the Network North command paper.”

On 26 October the Bill’s Select Committee paused its scrutiny until it had further information from the Government or instruction from the Commons.

The Hansard Society estimates that just over 1,300 hours of legislative time has been spent on four HS2-related bills, in addition to the testimony of hundreds of petitioners.

Will the cancelled phases be built in the future?

There is no guarantee what future governments’ policy will be.

Lord Adonis, who began planning HS2 under Labour, said he expected further high-speed lines would be built:

When HS2 opens […] the contrast between the old and the new rail infrastructure will be so stark, and congestion north of Birmingham so severe, that I expect the Manchester and Leeds branches will be built fairly rapidly.

However, the Labour party has not committed to re-introducing HS2 in full if were to be elected.

Critics of the cancellation of Phase 2 have also noted that the decision to allow the sale of land originally bought for HS2 Phase 2 and the scaling back of the station at Euston mean that future phases will be more difficult and expensive to construct, and might limit future destinations that can be served.

About the Author: Mike Benson is a transport researcher in the House of Commons Library. The maps were produced by Iona Stewart, a statistics researcher at the Library.

Photo by Umair D on Unsplash

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