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UK PM refuses to end uncertainty over high-speed rail line’s future



Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak looks on the day of Britain’s Conservative Party’s annual conference in Manchester, Britain, October 3, 2023. REUTERS/Toby Melville Acquire Licensing Rights

MANCHESTER, England, Oct 3 (Reuters) – Prime Minister Rishi Sunak refused on Tuesday to end speculation about the future of Britain’s HS2 high-speed railway project, saying he was still considering whether to scrap or delay construction of the northern leg of the train line.

At his party’s annual conference in Manchester, one of the destinations for the second phase of the high-speed train link, Sunak was under pressure from business leaders and organisations to make a decision and end uncertainty about whether the project would or would not go ahead.

With Conservative lawmakers saying his announcement on delaying the second phase of HS2 was already in his closing speech on Wednesday, the prime minister again said he would take his time to make the “right decision” on the project’s future.

“I know there is a lot of speculation, but I won’t be forced into a premature decision because it is good for someone’s TV programme. What I want to do is make the right decision for the country,” he told BBC television.

“This is an enormous amount of people’s money, taxpayers’ money, billions and billions of pounds. We shouldn’t be rushed into things like that. What people would expect from me is to take the time and go over it properly.”

Business leaders in Manchester say they believe the writing is on the wall for Europe’s biggest infrastructure project, with one boss, who declined to be identified, describing a probable scrapping or delay of the northern leg as a “betrayal” by government.

HS2, or High Speed 2, was originally expected to link London with cities including Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, but has already been scaled back. Rail industry leaders say that every delay means the project gets more expensive.

Government ministers have often said HS2 should be reviewed given spiralling costs, raising the prospect of its northern section being axed and prompting warnings from businesses over the need to invest.

“It’s clear that the costs of this programme have escalated,” Sunak told Times Radio.

Sunak, who is hoping to use his party’s annual conference to revive his premiership and close the gap in opinion polls with the Labour Party before an election expected next year, has repeatedly said he is the man to take “tough decisions”.

Scrapping the link to Manchester would reduce HS2 to a line between London and Birmingham. Work on this initial phase is already advanced and the government has already spent 2.3 billion pounds on the northern part of the trainline.

Even before Britain’s run of double-digit inflation from late 2022 to early 2023, the HS2 budget had ballooned.

Its 2015 cost of 55.7 billion pounds ($68 billion) reached 98 billion pounds by 2019, and a 2020 review showed that could rise to 106 billion pounds.

Reporting by Elizabeth Piper, Andrew MacAskill, Alistair Smout, Sachin Ravikumar, writing by Sarah Young; editing by Kate Holton and Bernadette Baum

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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