“Productive” talks have been held between mayors and the transport secretary over a possible revival of HS2, Andy Burnham has said.
The mayor of Greater Manchester told the Transport Select Committee he had met Mark Harper on Wednesday morning to discuss privately funded options to bring back the rail project – scrapped by Rishi Sunak in October.
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Last week, Mr Harper told a transport conference he would approach any meeting with “an open mind”, though he remained “somewhat sceptical” about whether HS2 could be completed without public investment.
But Mr Burnham backed the work he and his West Midlands counterpart, Andy Street, were carrying out, telling MPs: “If we do nothing, we will have a major transport headache.”
And he said more details of the plan could emerge in either February or March.
The prime minister made the axing of the northern leg of HS2 – set to run between Birmingham and Manchester – his key announcement at last year’s Conservative Party conference.
Mr Sunak said the “economic case” for the line had “massively weakened with the changes to business travel post-COVID”, and he promised to spend “every single penny” of the £36bn being saved on “hundreds of new transport projects in the North and the Midlands, and across the country”.
But he was met with fierce opposition from both Mr Burnham and Mr Street, with the former accusing the government of treating people in the north of England as “second-class citizens”.
Now the pair have commissioned a group of private sector partners, headed by former HS2 chairman, Sir David Higgins, to look into financing major rail improvements between Handsacre Junction in Staffordshire – where HS2 will end – and High Leigh in Cheshire – on the planned route for Northern Powerhouse Rail between Manchester and Liverpool.
Speaking about the meeting, Mr Burnham told the committee: “We’ve had a constructive discussion with the secretary of state this morning about the work that we’re doing.
“It’s good that the government is at least listening to what we’re saying.”
He added: “As 2030 and 2040 come around, there is just no way on God’s earth that the M6 and the West Coast mainline are capable of servicing the growth that we’re seeing in Greater Manchester and in the West Midlands.
“There has to be another option for rail connectivity between the two cities.
“We’re just looking at those possibilities, looking at a modest upgrade to the West Coast mainline or something more substantial, and how private finance might play a role in that.”
Mr Harper tweeted a picture of the meeting, pledging to “keep in contact as they continue to set out their ideas”.
But he insisted the government’s position on cancelling phase two of HS2 “has not changed”, adding: “We are already getting on with delivering our Network North plan, which will see £36bn reallocated into local transport projects – benefitting more people in more places, more quickly.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Transport added: “The transport secretary assured the mayors that he would remain in contact with them to discuss how transport connectivity could be improved across the region.
“He also made clear that we’ve cancelled HS2 Phase 2 and we’re already reinvesting the £36bn of savings to fund local transport projects that will benefit more people, in more places, more quickly.
“This includes reinvesting all of the £19.8bn committed to the Northern leg of HS2 in the North and all of the £9.6bn committed to the Midlands leg in the Midlands.”