HS2 southern section ‘could be put on ice’

Boris Johnson to review controversial rail project amid concerns over spiralling costs

(Image credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Boris Johnson is considering putting the southern part of the HS2 rail link on hold if he becomes prime minister amid growing concern over spiralling costs.

This weekend the Financial Times reported an internal review which suggested the cost of Britain’s new high-speed railway line is to spiral by as much as £30bn.

Preliminary findings by Allan Cook, the new chairman of HS2 who took over in December last year, predict the final cost of building the line could now rise to between £70bn and £85bn, way over the current official £56bn budget.

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“There has already been plenty of evidence suggesting that the project's original estimates of how much it would cost to purchase land and property along the route were significantly below the true values” says the BBC’s Tom Burridge.

With die-hard supporter Chris Grayling likely to be replaced as transport secretary by a new prime minister “this leak, which feels at the very least like a case of ‘no smoke without fire’, comes at a very sensitive time”, he adds.

“News of the likely cost overruns will add to mounting questions over the future of HS2, one of the country’s most contentious infrastructure projects,” says the FT. “It has been beset by delays, contract scandals and concerns over poor management, as well as allegations by whistleblowers that parliament was misled on the budget for land purchases.”

While Johnson’s first few months in office look set to be dominated by Brexit, a decision on HS2 will have to be made by the end of this year and looks likely to prove an early test for the new prime minister.

The Guardian says “Johnson has not sounded hugely convinced by HS2, and campaigners against the project believe they now have a chance to stop it”.

One of them, Deanne DuKhan, told the paper: “Recently lobbyists for HS2 have scrambled to convince a sceptical public that it’s too late to stop the project but no construction has started yet, only preparatory works. Notice to proceed, which has been delayed by over a year, will now not be given by the government until early next year.”

“A new prime minister would have an opportunity to redirect that massive funding envelope and distribute the investment across the entire rail network. Some genuinely vital and transformational projects could go ahead if the billions for HS2 were reallocated, including system-wide upgrades and intra-city schemes” she added.

The first segment of the project between London and Birmingham is due to open at the end of 2026, with the second phase to Leeds and Manchester expected to be completed by 2032-33.

However, The Daily Telegraph reports Johnson “is considering plans to put the southern half of HS2 on ice amid mounting concerns about the costs of the scheme”.

The paper says the Tory leadership contender, who is expected to enter Downing Street on Wednesday, “has been studying proposals to begin building the railway line in the North, rather than London, as part of a set of policy changes designed to demonstrate a focus on ‘left behind’ regions and towns”.

The plans, discussed as part of his team’s transition work in readiness for taking office, would involve pushing back construction of the southern half of the line, between London and Birmingham, and giving the green light to the phase connecting the West Midlands with Leeds and Manchester.

Whatever the new prime minister decides will draw sharp reaction. Despite ongoing problems and worries over costs, The Daily Express says “the project remains supported by council bosses in the north and midlands, whose residents would be able to travel to the Capital at speeds of 250mph”.

“There is, indeed, a conservative case for not building HS2. The strategic need for greater rail capacity is overwhelming but the project’s critics argue that this can be delivered much more cheaply by alternatives, via investment in existing lines, for example,” writes Chairman of the Midlands Industrial Council Jonny Leavesley in The Daily Telegraph.

But he argues “our economy needs rebalancing” and HS2 would be a major catalyst to achieving that.

“We have come so far in the planning that it would be a national embarrassment to cancel HS2 now. There have been enough of those. It would be a Pyrrhic victory for saving money. Our continued national prosperity requires imaginative and bold investments,” he says.

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