Large parts of the HS2 project could be scrapped, delayed or redesigned to save costs as part of another government review into the project, it has been reported.
The Treasury and the Department for Transport have launched two cost-saving reviews into the project which could see the HS2 link to the East Midlands scrapped as well as speed and frequency of services across the route cut, according to the Financial Times.
According to the newspaper, the two reviews, known as Project Silverlight and Operation Blue Diamond, aim to identify cost savings through measures such as pushing back the construction schedule for Phase 1, which links London and Birmingham.
The HS2 link to the East Midlands was designed to join up with the existing rail network and allow trains to run to Leeds and Sheffield. The option itself is a scaled-back version of the earlier HS2 eastern leg, which was initially intended to be built all the way to Leeds before it was scrapped in 2021 as part of a revised Integrated Rail Plan. The current proposals see the new line running to East Midlands Parkway.
Delays to Phase 1 could be between two and four years, the newspaper reported. The timetable for the opening of Phase 1 has already slipped from an initial date of 2026 to between 2029 and 2033. The opening date for Phase 2a has also been pushed back to between 2035 and 2041 rather than the initially announced 2033 date.
Meanwhile, The Telegraph reported that the same reviews could result in speeds along the route being reduced to as low as 125 mph. This would allow a cheaper standard ballast option to be used as the track bed instead of the concrete slabs needed to handle the impact of trains operating at the current proposed 224 mph.
Plans to scale back HS2 were greeted with dismay by advocates of the new rail line. A spokesperson for the High Speed Rail Group, a membership body including many of the contractors delivering the scheme, said: “Rising project costs are due to ongoing inflationary pressures in the economy, with higher costs in the construction industry driven in large part by global energy prices. Government has to face these inflationary effects on its committed national investment projects, just as it has done with consumer energy costs.”
They added that a forced slowdown or delay would add to rather than reduce project costs, damage business in the West Midlands and North West, and drag out the disruption caused by building the line.
“Respecifying or simply delaying the project will mean in effect loosening proper controls on the project and we desperately need the growth and productivity benefits HS2 will bring in order to fight the cost-of-living crisis. In future it will always be said that HM Treasury is partially to blame for its lateness and overspend,” they said.
Revelations that the project is under yet another series of cost reviews come less than a fortnight after chancellor Jeremy Hunt committed to delivering HS2 to Euston, after The Sun reported that plans for the London hub might be scrapped.
In a BBC News interview following a speech on the economy, Hunt said that he did not “see any conceivable circumstance” in which HS2 would terminate anywhere else than Euston.
Asked by Construction News to respond to the initial report, the Department for Transport was less emphatic than the chancellor, merely noting that the government “remains committed to delivering HS2 to Manchester, as confirmed in the Autumn Statement” in November.
In response to the latest reports, a DfT spokesperson said: “We do not comment on speculation. Spades are already in the ground on the HS2 programme. It will better connect regions across the UK, provide a greener option of travel and is supporting tens of thousands of jobs.
“We remain committed to delivering the project from Euston to Manchester and continue to work in line with the integrated rail plan.”