Misery for motorists as Rishi Sunak’s HS2 cut ‘set to put half a million more lorries on the road’

Transport bosses say HS2 plan to shift huge quantities of freight to rail now impossible

Jon Stone
Thursday 12 October 2023 16:42 BST
Rishi Sunak confirms HS2’s Manchester leg will be scrapped

Rishi Sunak’s cuts to HS2 will leave more motorists sitting in traffic jams as companies abandon plans to shift freight from lorries onto rail, transport bosses have warned.

The northern phase of HS2 was expected to create space to take half a million lorries a year off the road each year, a feat which firms say will now be impossible.

After that part of the project was scrapped, the prime minister was accused of a “senseless and counterproductive” U-turn – and warned his policy would lead to “major backlogs on our already congested roads”.

The warning shot comes after Mr Sunak unveiled a “plan for drivers” and reallocated billions from the HS2 budget to road upgrades in a bid to cast himself as the friend of the motorist.

During his conference speech last week, he also said cash from HS2 could be used to upgrade roads including the A1, A2, A5, and M6 – although he has since said such proposals were “indicative” and may not happen.

But figures crunched by transport firms predict there will be 500,000 extra lorry trips on the roads as a result of cancelling the rail line to Manchester – roughly equivalent to an extra journey a year for every single registered HGV in Britain.

HS2 was designed to relieve existing rail lines, leaving more space for local services and freight paths.

Andy Bagnall, chief executive of Rail Partners, which represents the parent companies of railway operators including freight firms, said: “A decision of this magnitude will have consequences felt for generations by the rail industry, its supply chain, passengers and freight customers.

“The cancellation of the northern section of HS2 means less capacity for rail freight and ultimately more lorries clogging our roads, with businesses seeking to decarbonise their supply chains limited in their options to move goods off the roads and onto rails.”

Mr Bagnall said it was now “even more critical” for the government to invest and set “an ambitious freight growth target to maintain investor confidence and outline which strategic freight projects will be taken forward to create capacity in the absence of HS2”.

Firms say a single freight train removes the equivalent of around 129 lorries from Britain’s roads. There are around 500,000 licensed HGVs in Britain which made 153 million HGV journeys in the 12 months to June 2022.

Rishi Sunak announced the cuts at the Conservative Party conference
Rishi Sunak announced the cuts at the Conservative Party conference (PA Wire)

Businesses that were counting on using the new capacity also criticised the government’s move, warning that it would affect the UK’s global trade and supply chain.

“Cancelling the second phase of HS2 will massively impact the country’s rail network. Without this vital additional capacity, plans to improve the UK’s freight and passenger services will be restricted,” said Alex Veitch, director of policy and insights at the British Chambers of Commerce.

“Each train that HS2’s capacity would have unlocked had the potential to remove up to 129 lorries from the road, this will also be a lost opportunity to build a low-carbon freight transport system.

“And it will affect our global trade: one in four sea containers arriving or departing from a port is carried by rail, and additional capacity is urgently needed.”

Wera Hobhouse, the Liberal Democrats transport spokesperson, said: “This is yet another broken promise from Rishi Sunak which will end up causing major backlogs on our already congested roads and railway lines.”

Speaking after Mr Sunak’s speech, transport secretary Mark Harper said that “saving the £36bn we were due to spend” on HS2 and “investing every penny” in alternative transport projects was “a decision I’m proud of”.

He told the BBC: “The most congested part of the West Coast Main Line is the southern part and of course, we’re still committed to Phase 1 of HS2 from Euston to Birmingham. So actually, that frees up a significant amount of capacity.

“Also, the Midlands Rail Hub and some of that connectivity delivers a lot of freight connections in that region. And also, HS2 has been crowding out other spending, so one of the things that we announced yesterday was the Ely area capacity enhancement project in the east of England, a £600m project that is really important for freight, but we haven’t been able to do that project because of HS2.

“We can now make that commitment, which was the single biggest ask of rail freight industry, which we are now able to deliver.”

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