Eastern link could be binned after being scaled back in Intergrated Rail Plan nearly two years ago
Long delays and cuts to stretches of HS2 have been put on the table, with the megaproject reportedly set for yet another wholesale review.
According to The Times newspaper, the Department for Transport (DfT) is poised to commission HS2 Ltd to take over two internal government probes to examine the scheme in its entirety in order to contain spiralling costs on the job.
Options reportedly include delays to the completion of phases, scrapping what remains of HS2 East, or cutting the new link from Crewe to Manchester, with high-speed trains instead running on existing tracks.
The HS2-led review will supersede Project Silverlight and Project Blue Diamond, which were respectively set up to find efficiencies on the project’s first phase and to hunt for cost savings across the entire scheme.
The newspaper reports that Alan Over, director general of the DfT’s High Speed Rail Group, will review their findings before the project is transferred to HS2 Ltd.
The delivery of HS2 has already been considerably delayed, with the expected completion of the first phase pushed back from 2026 to a window of 2029 to 2033, with a further delay of four years now reportedly being considered.
The second part of the line to Manchester and the truncated eastern leg have also been pushed back from 2033 to a window of 2035 to 2041.
There are growing doubts the eastern leg will be delivered at all – a 90-mile stretch of the line between East Midlands Parkway, near Nottingham, and Leeds was scrapped in late 2021.
Now it appears the remaining 40 miles of proposed rail lines between Birmingham and East Midlands Parkway could also be sacrificed.
According to independent rail consultant William Barter, scrapping HS2 East could allow Euston station to be delivered more quickly and for less money.
Last October, the government confirmed the number of platforms at Euston would be reduced from 11 to 10 to allow it to be built in a single phase, and, according to Barter, cutting the eastern leg would mean the station could be even smaller.
A delay to the opening of the section of the line from Old Oak Common to Euston – previously reported to have been on the chopping block – is also being mooted as part of the review.
HS2 has already scrutinised been in two government-ordered studies in the past four years.
The scrapping of the Leeds link came with the Integrated Rail Plan, the last major review of the HS2 scheme, and a year before that, the Douglas Oakervee independent review published its own findings on the scope of the project.
According to The Times, prime minister Rishi Sunak is sceptical of the benefits of HS2 and had pushed for it to be scaled back while he was chancellor.
But the current resident at Number 11 Downing Street, Jeremy Hunt, has been a vocal supporter and spoke at an All Party Parliamentary Group on Infrastructure reception last week of his ambition to build a whole network of high speed rail links in the UK.
“I really want to have HS3, HS4 and HS5. We have got to have much better connectivity,” he said.
News of the review comes alongside the appointment of a new chair of HS2 Ltd, a role which has been vacant since the departure of Allan Cook in July 2021.
Sir Jonathan Thompson, former chief executive of the Financial Reporting Council, has taken up the position after 11 months as deputy chair.
Thompson wrote in The Telegraph over the weekend that the high cost of the project was because it was being built more responsibly than in other countries.
“Why is it more expensive building in Britain than in, say, China? Here we do not ride roughshod over the environment, over planning law, over local authorities and local people,” he said.
“Is it more expensive per mile than in France? Yes. Because we choose tunnelling over the demolition of whole communities and swathes of countryside to protect people, wildlife and our precious green spaces.”
A DfT spokesperson said it would not comment on “speculation” but that it remains “committed to delivering the project from Euston to Manchester and continue to work in line with the Integrated Rail Plan”.
Last month, the department’s permanent secretary, Bernadette Kelly, told the House of Commons transport select committee that inflation was putting a strain on its capital spending and could necessitate “quite tough decisions” on the phasing and delivery of projects, including HS2.