I’m going to assume that you know what HS2 is. The £100+ billion project has been highly controversial ever since it was proposed by the Labour government in 2009, and then reviewed in 2010 by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.
Originally set to be a distinct ‘Y’ shaped line, construction on the ‘High Speed 2‘ line between London Euston and Lichfield near Birmingham is well under way.
However, recent months have stalled the plans for Phase 2 and 3 – which is why you may have noticed people protesting this week at Piccadilly Gardens, or seen Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham expressing anger on North West Tonight.
It’s all a bit of a mess really, with many people and groups throwing their arms up in the air and waggling them about in anger and frustration. But what is really going on?
November 2021 saw a newly unveiled plan for the railways in the North, with ministers axing the second ‘leg’ of the high-speed line to Leeds, scaling back the new lines and downgrading HS2 trains to run on existing upgraded routes instead.
The u-turn was met with understandable anger and frustration from most, including many Conservative MPs, while Labour said that the plans had “completely sold out” the north.
The HS2 will still run to Manchester, but the eastern leg of the line will end at an existing east Midlands station rather than going from Birmingham to Leeds.
Then in January 2022, the government unveiled plans for a huge overground station to be added to Manchester Piccadilly to cater for the HS2 trains – which have further exacerbated things in the city.
The overgrown station has attracted a number of large criticisms from the public and politicians who think it will be disruptive during construction and take up too much prime land – with one even dubbing the concrete struts “HS2 on stilts.”
In addition, an overground station would come to “dominate parts of the city”, with “huge concrete viaducts” that would overshadow parts of East Manchester.
Recent days have seen Manchester City Council urge the government to re-think the plans and instead support an underground station which they believe will deliver greater benefits and growth for years to come.
Estimates from independent advisors suggest that the extra land required by the overground station and infrastructure would result in the loss of 123 acres of land that could have supported around 14,000 jobs.
It’s also worth noting that these most recent plans, from architecture firm Weston Williamson + Partners have been called “oven ready” if the government opts to rethink its HS2 bill.
The Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, has expressed his commitment to ensuring that HS2 comes to the region, however he agrees that the overground station is “wrong”.
He said: “Building HS2 on the surface at Manchester Piccadilly means the new station will be at full capacity from day one.
“It means the new train services from Liverpool and Leeds having to reverse out. And it also means forever losing prime development land and the economic opportunity that goes with it.
“We also again have to ask again: why is Greater Manchester the only part of the country being asked to make a substantial financial contribution to the cost of HS2? We believe there is a better plan which would do much more to level up the north of England with the south.”
He called for a new underground station in Manchester to help deliver a new line between Manchester and Leeds, “which is what we were promised”.
Parliament is set to consider the new plans for the western leg of HS2 at the beginning of the week, with details on delivering and investing in rail infrastructure across the North and Midlands, “enhancing connectivity to north-west England, Wales, and Scotland”.
Quite whether the bill will pass though is to be seen – the plans have some considerable opponents, but also very vocal supporters.
Many argue that the HS2 itself is already redundant, with spiralling construction costs and a significant shift in the way people work after the COVID pandemic, making the proposals look less and less attractive as things progress.
So there you have it, the bill has been presented to Parliament and we’ll see where it goes from here. Personally I hope that they’ll reconsider the overground operation through the city, but I certainly won’t be holding my breath for any changes to the plans.
With spiralling costs and controversial protests continuing as a result, the government will be looking to save as much money as possible on the project – and if that means throwing a significant portion of the city under a (concrete) bus – then so be it.