‘Huge disappointment’ in HS2 project changes

By Leila Steed18 November 2021

Aerial photo of Florence, HS2's first TBM that will dig underneath the Chilterns. (Photo: HS2 Ltd)

Contractors have expressed disappointment in the UK government’s decision to eliminate the Birmingham to Leeds section of the HS2 high speed rail project,

Known as the ‘Eastern Leg’, the extension to the London-Birmingham HS2 line would have linked the Midlands and with Leeds by running through parts of South and West Yorkshire.

Instead, Leeds and West Yorkshire will get a new mass transit system and “£200 million of immediate funding to plan the project and start building it” as part of the new £96 billion Integrated Rail Plan (IRP). 

The High Speed Rail Group, which has contractors and engineering companies such as Keltbray, Aecom, Align JV, EKFB, Costain, Skanska and Siemens among its members, said; “If today’s announcements had come from a standing start, the industry would doubtless have been pleased with the investment.

“But the reality is they represent a reduction in the previous plans for both HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail. This u-turn significantly dents confidence in the sector.

“The regular chopping and changing of the scope of projects, and revisiting questions that had previously been settled, is one of the biggest drivers of high infrastructure costs in this country – It is imperative that the Government now set out clear timescales for the proposed projects to move forward, and then stick to them.”

Despite welcoming the news that the majority of HS2 would go ahead, the organisation said the cutbacks were “a huge disappointment”.

UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the plan includes the construction of three new high-speed railway lines; one from Nottingham to Birmingham, another from London to Manchester and a third from Leeds and Manchester - with the last one being part of the Northern Powerhouse Rail project.

However, over half of the £96 billion budget has already been spent on phase 1 of HS2 and the Northern Powerhouse Rail project - reports suggest only £40 billion is new funding - and the plan’s “new” railway lines will be upgrades of existing twin tracks, which date back to Victorian times.

Alongside the scrapping of the Eastern Leg of HS2, the IRP will also see cutbacks to the Northern Powerhouse Rail project.

In a statement posted on social media, Henri Murison, Director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership - a pressure group comprising leading businesses in the North of England - commented how the changes would affect the region’s economy.

He said, “The lack of a full line across the Pennines will dramatically reduce the capacity and potential for rapid economic growth, in particular in the cities of Leeds and Bradford.

“What Northern leaders had proposed was an economically transformational vision. What we have is, as ever, second class.”

Murison added, “The complete failure to deliver the Eastern Leg of HS2 in the North is a major blow”

The response from the construction equipment sector

The UK’s Construction Equipment Association (CEA) has also spoken out about the impact the IRP will have on the construction sector.

Suneeta Johal, Chief Executive at the CEA, said, “The demise of Phase 2b clouds the original vision of HS2 as a dynamic North/South link in line with the levelling up agenda.

“The concern is whether the government will row back on other infrastructure ‘commitments’. A solid project pipeline is the lifeblood of our sector.”

Construction Union reacts to revised HS2 plan

Following suit, the construction workers’ union Unite has branded the revised infrastructure plan as “an act of industrial vandalism”.

Jerry Swain, Unite national officer for construction, said, “This decision has put back national infrastructure planning by a generation. It is nothing short of industrial vandalism.

“By cancelling the HS2 spur to Leeds the government is demonstrating that it is simply not serious about its levelling up agenda and that its manifesto commitment to improving regional connectivity was nothing but hot air.

“HS2 should be the gold standard of construction projects for the next decade and beyond. The entire UK should be benefiting from this development.

“By cancelling the Leeds spur of HS2, the government is denying a huge chunk of the UK the positive benefits of high speed rail, while expecting them to pay for it.

“Despite the cancellation of the Leeds spur it remains essential that the surviving sections of the project become the benchmark that all other construction projects in the UK are set against, in terms of pay, safety, working practices and apprentices. A failure to do so would be a further own goal by the government.”

*The below article was published prior to the IRP announcement, on 17 November, 2021

Concern in the construction industry is growing over speculation that the UK Government is to put an end to plans to extend the HS2 railway between Birmingham and Leeds.

According to reports, Grant Shapps, the UK Transport Secretary, is expected to cancel the high speed railway extension as part of a major Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) announcement due to be made later today.

Appearing to hold their breath in an anxious wait for more details, major HS2 contractors Kier, BAM, Sir Robert McAlpine and Balfour Beatty, have refrained from commenting on speculation surrounding the IRP announcement.

The original plans for the ‘Eastern Leg’ extension of the HS2 line would have linked the Midlands and with Leeds by running through parts of South and West Yorkshire.

In addition to the construction of a new high speed railway line network, it would have also seen the construction of new train station built at Leeds.

The likely u-turn on the HS2 link between Birmingham and Leeds comes amid reports that the Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) project will also be scaled back.

Plans for NPR, which would have been integrated with the HS2 Eastern Leg, originally included the provision of a new railway line between Leeds and Manchester via Bradford.

Martin Tugwell, Chief Executive of Transport for the North, Martin Tugwell, Chief Executive of Transport for the North

However, reports now suggest that upgrades will be made to the existing Transpennine rail line instead - an option that is not expected to meet the region’s transport, environmental and economic needs.

Martin Tugwell, Chief Executive of Transport for the North, the UK’s first sub-national railway body and a partner for the strategic rollout of NPR, said, “We are aware of speculation on the details of what may or may not be contained within the Integrated Rail Plan.

“If the rumours are true then it is deeply worrying because it means we won’t have the benefit of that comprehensive transformation of the rail network that will make all the difference to our region’s people and businesses.

Speculating on how plans for the Eastern Leg might be scaled back, Tugwell added, “If all we are doing is a little bit of a tweak here and there then it is probably going to be more disruptive and we will not get that transformational change.

“As we wait to see the IRP, what remains clear is our commitment to securing the best possible rail connectivity for the 15.2 million people of the North – and fundamental to that connectivity is the work we have done to date on Northern Powerhouse Rail as a co-client with Government and the way it integrates with the rest of the rail network – including with HS2.”

While anti-HS2 campaigners have reacted positively to the impending cancellation of the Eastern Leg - the original plans for which included the demolition of homes and the construction of large viaducts - many in the region consider it to be yet another betrayal by the Government, and one that will result in an event greater divide between the North and South of the country.

MPs in the North have also spoken out. Describing the probable scaling back of the project in a national television interview, West Yorkshire Mayor Tracy Brabin, said, “It’s absolutely levelling-down, and it’s a betrayal of the North.

“We are wanting to work with Government, we want to level-up our communities...but for that to happen it [the region] needs to have the connections that London has.”

Brabin added, “Boris Johnson has said several times, particularly about Northern Powerhouse Rail, that he wants to deliver Northern Powerhouse Rail in the same way he delivered Crossrail for London...We shouldn’t have to choose between projects.”

Similarly, Kate Osborne, the Labour MP for Jarrow, said, “We seriously need investment in rail spending in the North. We’ve been left behind and shortchanged for far too long. Anything less than promised will be a betrayal.”

Many of those angered by the possible cancellation of the HS2 rail extension have already taken to social media to vent their disapproval.

A post on Twitter from NP11 - a business-led partnership of public and private sector companies operating across the North, said, “We must have both #HS2 and #NorthernPowerhouseRail built in full to truly transform #connectivity in our region; to give our people and businesses the network they need and deserve to achieve their ambitions; to rebalance the economy, and realise the #levellingup agenda”.

Similarly, The Yorkshire Post newspaper said, “Failure to go ahead with HS2 to Leeds would serve to demonstrate the emptiness of Conservative slogans and promises and delegates the region to second class status.”

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