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HS2: rumours rife over project

Speculation over the progress of HS2 is rife. Will the government curtail this massive infrastructure project short of its original destinations or make other changes to the project? Rumours have it that Phase II between Birmingham and Manchester may be scrapped, or that the final destination of Euston will not be reached. With the Leeds leg scrapped by the government in 2021 over cost concerns, industry is concerned that High Speed rail ambitions will not be realised.

In response, the Railway Industry Association (RIA) has reviewed the Department for Transport (DfT) data on rail passenger numbers, which shows that passenger numbers today are significantly higher than when HS2 was originally approved in 2012, and also shows positive news on the return to rail since the Covid pandemic.

Rail passenger numbers have continued to rise as we come out of the pandemic. The DfT figures, which include the new ridership on the Elizabeth line, show that over the last year average daily passenger levels – when compared with 2019-20, which up until the effect of Covid had the highest ridership on record – have risen from 83% in calendar year 2022 Quarter 4, to 91% in 2023 Q1, to 96% in 2023 Q2 and Q3. In April this year, passenger levels had reached over 100% on 14 out of the month’s 30 days.

Darren Caplan, Chief Executive of the Railway Industry Association, commented: “One of the reasons cited by critical politicians for scrapping HS2 Phase 2 is that passenger numbers are significantly down and people will not travel by train in future. This is plain wrong, and all of us associated with the railway industry should be out there publicly refuting this assertion. In fact, today’s passenger levels are already significantly higher than when the business case for HS2 was approved, and have been growing back strongly since the pandemic.

“Using the DfT’s own statistics, which includes the phenomenal success of the Elizabeth Line, it is clear that passenger numbers are returning to close to pre-Covid levels – and we should remember the pandemic only ended in 2022. In the last six months, passenger numbers have been averaging 96% of pre-Covid levels, despite strikes and poor service levels on some parts of the network, and including the quieter summer months.

“In short, passengers have been returning in droves around the country and there is no evidence this trend upwards will not continue in future. With a growing population, and a generally agreed need to level-up and decarbonise, now is clearly not the time for the Government to be scrapping major project like HS2 Phase 2, the main benefit of the scheme being it frees up much-needed capacity on the West Coast, Midlands and East Coast Mainlines for the increasing numbers of passengers we are going to see in the years ahead.”

The former head of the Strategic Rail Authority, Richard Bowker has also spoken out against the rumours, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that if the Birmingham to Manchester section of HS2 was dropped, “we really have done a very, very stupid thing”.

“HS2 to Manchester is fully integrated with something called Northern Powerhouse Rail. You can’t do Northern Powerhouse Rail without that Manchester section.”

He also said that not taking the HS2 line into central London would be “utter madness”.

Meanwhile Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham said any plans to curtail the route would create  a “north-south chasm” as it “rips the heart” out of NPR.

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