Image source, HS2
By Katy Austin, Chris Mason and Kate Whannel
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is set to announce the scrapping of the HS2 high-speed rail line from the West Midlands to Manchester.
In his Conservative Party conference speech later, the PM is expected to set out a range of alternative projects in the north of England and Wales.
He is likely to argue these projects will be better value for money and can be delivered more quickly.
It comes after weeks of speculation about the future of the line.
Appearing on BBC Breakfast, Defence Secretary Grant Shapps effectively confirmed a new high-speed rail line would not be built to Manchester but said HS2 trains would still run to the city and to Leeds, albeit on existing tracks.
The London to Birmingham leg of HS2 is already being built.
Mr Shapps, who was transport secretary under Boris Johnson, said there would "still be a much faster journey time" to Manchester.
However, he said that changes to travel patterns following the Covid pandemic meant the government had to consider whether whether the "billions of pounds" for HS2 could be better spent on other projects.
He added that full details of alternative transport schemes would be set out in the prime minister's conference speech in Manchester later.
The reports have already prompted anger among local leaders and businesses.
The Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, accused the government of "disrespecting people across the whole of the North".
"It just proves there are so many people in politics - many in the Tory party - that think they can treat the north of England differently to the way they treat other parts of the country," he told BBC Breakfast.
The Conservative West Midlands mayor Andy Street, who on Monday called an impromptu press conference to warn Mr Sunak that getting rid of HS2 would amount to "cancelling the future", is said to be distraught by the news of the prime minister's decision.
Former prime ministers Boris Johnson, Theresa May and David Cameron have also issued warnings against scaling the high-speed line back.
However, some Tory MPs oppose HS2, arguing it is a waste of money and there are better ways to improve transport links.
The football club Manchester United was among 30 businesses who wrote to the prime minister urging him to commit to the line and avoid "economic self-sabotage".
It was hoped HS2 would cut journey times, create more space on the rail network and boost jobs outside London.
But there had been concerns about the mounting costs of the infrastructure project, with the latest estimates for the project amounting to about £71bn.
Even that figure was in 2019 prices so it does not account for the spike in costs for materials and wages in recent months.
Image source, ReutersImage caption,
Rishi Sunak with his staff the day before his speech to the party conference in Manchester
On Tuesday, the prime minister had insisted he would not be "forced into a premature decision" on the future of HS2, amid growing pressure to make an announcement.
There has been frustration from both Tory supporters and opponents of HS2 that the issue has been allowed to overshadow the party conference in Manchester, the city that will feel it is losing out most.
If Mr Sunak confirms in his speech later that HS2 trains will go to Manchester using existing tracks, it follows that no extra space would be created and journey time benefits would be reduced.
In recent days, there have been suggestions that instead of building HS2, money could be put towards improving east-west rail links across the north of England.
For example, Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) aims to improve connections between Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool.
However, the project has been designed to intersect with HS2, using a section of the high speed line, and if HS2 does not continue to Manchester this would increase the costs of NPR.
Henri Murrison, chief executive of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, called the scrapping of the HS2 line "a national tragedy here in the north of England, economically at least".
HS2 was initially proposed in 2010, and given the go-ahead in 2012, when then-Conservative Transport Secretary Justine Greening called it "the most significant transport infrastructure project since the building of the motorways".
There have already been delays, disruption, a big cut to HS2's Eastern leg, and salami slicing on HS2 - but this latest decision would change the project and its outcomes beyond recognition.
At least £22.5bn has already been spent building the London-Birmingham section, while £2.3bn has gone towards the second phase, on things such as buying up land and property.
Thirty-thousand people are already working on HS2, mostly in the supply chain.
There are also people whose lives have already been uprooted by property purchases along the planned HS2 route north of Birmingham.
Mr Sunak will be delivering his conference speech at a tricky time for the Conservatives, who have been lagging behind Labour in the polls for over a year.
Speaking from the Manchester Central Convention Complex - an old railway turned into a conference venue - he will tell the audience that he is the man to "fundamentally change our country".
It may be his last conference speech before the next general election, due in 2024, and his team will hope that it can help change the fortunes of the prime minister and his party.