The three alternatives to HS2 proposed by the Mayors of the West Midlands and Greater Manchester

We attended the press conference with West Midlands Mayor Andy Street and Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham who outlined three alternatives to HS2.
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The mayors of the West Midlands and Greater Manchester have outlined an ambitious plan to tackle the gap resulting from the cancellation of the northern segment of the High-Speed 2 (HS2) rail project in Birmingham. 

Andy Street and Andy Burnham, representing their respective regions, announced three alternative options that promise “huge benefits” for commuters between the Midlands and North West England on February 7, 2024.

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Here’s a look at why they say these proposals are needed, and a look at what each one entails.

The HS2 Dilemma

The cancellation of HS2’s northern section last October created a significant gap in the country’s high-speed rail network. Rishi Sunak’s redirection of £36 billion into alternative transport schemes known as Network North prompted the mayors to take action. Burnham emphasised, “To do nothing is not an option.” The urgent need for improved rail connectivity drove them to explore innovative solutions.

A map highlighting the key aspects of the review (Image: West Midlands Combined Authority)

The three alternatives

  1. Segregated Line with Reduced Speeds: This option involves constructing a segregated rail line similar to the original HS2 plan but with lower maximum speeds. By compromising on speed, costs could be significantly reduced. The proposed line would run between Handsacre and Manchester Piccadilly, serving passengers while allowing freight to continue using the existing west coast mainline.

  2. Completely New Line: A more ambitious proposal suggests creating an entirely new rail line closely following the path of the abandoned HS2 section. Unlike HS2’s 225 mph trains, this alternative would operate at lower speeds. Street explained, “A lot of the cost in HS2 came from this very uncompromising point about speed.”

  3. Enhancing the West Coast Main Line (WCML): The third option involves upgrading the existing WCML, bypassing bottlenecks and improving services between Birmingham and Greater Manchester. While it may lack the transformative impact of a new line, it remains a pragmatic choice.

West Midlands' Mayor Andy Street and Greater Manchester's Mayor Andy Burnham (Image: Birmingham World)

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Who will pay for the plans? A look at the Private Sector Collaboration

The mayors have assembled a consortium led by Sir David Higgins, a former HS2 chairman. This private-public partnership includes engineering and finance firms such as Arup, EY, Skanska, and Mace. Their largely privately funded alternatives promise to cost “considerably less” than the original HS2 project, although precise figures are yet to be disclosed.

But why are these HS2 alternatives so important? Addressing Capacity Constraints

Burnham stressed that failing to increase capacity in the North West “would be damaging to economic growth in the regions and would mean the West Midlands and Greater Manchester would be set back.” 

He warned that the UK would be left “with quite a serious transport headache for the rest of this century,” especially considering that both the West Coast Main Line and the M6 motorway are already operating at capacity. Refusing a “do-nothing scenario,” Burnham highlighted the urgency of finding viable alternatives.

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Andy Street, the Tory mayor of the West Midlands, echoed Burnham’s urgency. While exploring alternatives, Street acknowledged the possibility of trains stopping between Crewe and Manchester on a new line. Unlike the original HS2 plan, which aimed for non-stop service, this approach recognises the need for strategic halts. However, Street assured, “There won’t be 10 stops.” Efficiency remains a priority.

A clear message for the HS2 alternatives - ‘Not a Pie in the Sky’

Street and Burnham emphasised that the proposed rail link between outer Birmingham and Greater Manchester is no mere fantasy. It addresses a “serious transport headache” faced by the country, ensuring economic growth and timely movement. 

While the debate continues, one thing is clear: the mayors are determined to find a solution that benefits both regions without compromising on efficiency.

As the nation grapples with its rail infrastructure challenges, the West Midlands and Greater Manchester mayors have taken a bold step toward a more connected future—one where commuters can travel seamlessly between these vibrant conurbations —The journey to a better-connected North begins, once again.

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