The new boss of HS2 has revealed plans to speed up the progress of the scheme – and challenged politicians to pave the way.
HS2 chairman Sir David Higgins proposed an accelerated timetable for the northern, phase two, section of a project which is fiercely championed by some yet bitterly opposed by others.
Launching a report entitled HS2 Plus, Sir David, the former London Olympics guru, also called for a new look at ways of improving connections between phase 2 and the existing railway.
In addition he proposed a larger development at Euston - the project’s southern terminus - but he added that plans to link HS2 with HS1, the London to Kent Channel Tunnel high-speed rail link, should be reconsidered.
Phase one of HS2 would see a line running from London through Tory heartlands to Birmingham and is due for completion in 2026.
Phase two will see the line continue in a Y-shape from Birmingham to north west and north east England and, under current plans, would be completed around 2032/33.
The current whole-line cost, including contingencies, is £42.6 billion, with £7.5 billion for the trains.
Shadow chancellor Ed Balls is concerned about the cost with other former Labour grandees expressing reservations about the scheme.
Shadow transport secretary Mary Creagh, however, welcomed the report saying: “As always we will continue to hold the Government to account for keeping costs down on the project.”
Outlining his report in Manchester, Sir David said reducing the contingencies, which have pushed the total cost of the project up, would be “irresponsible”.
But he said cost cuts might be possible later and he laid down the gauntlet to politicians by saying the speedier the HS2 legislation the better for cost reductions.
Sir David, formerly chief executive of Network Rail, said HS2 was “vital for the future of the country”.
He added: “The cost and impact have to be recognised and acknowledged, but so too do the cost and impact of doing nothing. Without HS2, the people of this country will continue to face the failures of our transport system on a daily basis.”
Sir David said the Government should “accelerate phase two as soon as possible”.
This would take the line 43 miles further north than planned, to a new transport hub at Crewe in Cheshire which could be completed by 2027, six years earlier than planned.
Sir David said the Crewe option was good for the area and the north of England generally, while a “more comprehensive redevelopment” of Euston could see the station become “an iconic driver of local regeneration whose beneficial effects will be felt for generations”.
Sir David said that despite the potential benefits of HS2, he was “conscious of the price - financial, physical and emotional - that HS2 will demand from the country, from communities and from individuals”.
He went on “That is why I have rejected any thought that the project should cut back on planned mitigation measures, whether noise or environmental. Those will continue. It is also why I support the Government’s proposed approach to property compensation. We need to be clear about the impact of the project, as well as its benefits, and address the consequences of that impact, as we are.”
Legislation covering phase one is currently going through Parliament, Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin has said that the legislation will not be completed before the General Election.
Sir David said: “The uncertainty over the legislative timetable plus the inherent risks associated with any project at this early stage is why I have resisted the temptation to reduce the large contingency contained in the budget. The same approach should be taken to the second phase when the work outlined above is complete.”
But he added: “None of that is to rule out the possibility that a target for a lower budget for phase one could be set at some point in the future, but only when the legislative timetable becomes clearer and more certain. There is a direct connection between the length of time the Parliamentary process takes, and the amount of contingency that is required.”
Sir David acknowledged: “HS2 is an enormous undertaking, but it is not an end in itself. If we do it right, it can be a catalyst for fundamental change at both a local and national level, up and down the country.
“It is ambitious because it needs to be, to meet the demands not just of the here and now, but of the future.”
Business Secretary Vince Cable expressed support for Sir David’s phase two plans while the Institution of Civil Engineers and the CBI were among other groups that received the report warmly.
However, the anti-HS2 groups cast doubt on the possibility of bringing forward the phase 2 work while the revamped Euston plan was seen as merely bringing “more wealth and work into London”.
Joe Rukin, campaign manager for Stop HS2, said: “David Higgins has spent three months looking for cost savings for HS2 and he hasn’t found a single bean. Any pretence that the costs of HS2 are under control are a fraudulent attempt to con the public.”
He added that the £50 billion cost was “always too low, and represents the cost if the whole project was built in one year and that year was 2011”.
He went on: “We know that these costs will continue to escalate. The only answer is to cancel the project and go back to the drawing board right now.”
Manuel Cortes, leader of the TSSA rail union, said: “Sir David is absolutely right - we cannot, as a country, take the slow line to a high-speed rail future.
“We need to make sure that the North benefits as quickly as the Midlands and the South from this huge investment.
“We need to make sure that North does not suffer a lost decade of growth while the South East powers ahead of the rest of the country with the lion’s share of the budget. The £50 billion investment must benefit the whole country if it is to help re-balance the economy.”
Network Rail group strategy director Paul Plummer said: “HS2 will sit at the heart of Britain’s transport network, allowing us to reshape the railway in a way that incremental improvements simply cannot.
“That’s why we welcome the report’s recommendations and its call for an integrated approach to planning and operating the railway.
“We can deliver the biggest benefit for passengers, communities and freight if we plan for the high-speed and existing lines to operate seamlessly together.
“This will also ensure we build upon investments we are making today to improve connectivity between major towns and cities.”
He added: “The step-change in capacity that HS2 enables across the network as a whole will transform the service on existing lines, creating the space we need to meet growing demand and deliver new and better connections.
“The timetables that might operate are by no means fixed and we will soon announce a programme of engagement with passengers and stakeholders, both inside and outside the industry, to seek their views on what should be prioritised as we start to plan future services.”
Under the accelerated plan put forward by Sir David, the Manchester leg of phase two could be completed by the end of March 2030, with the Leeds leg finished by the end of June 2030.
Sir David added that phase one could be operational by Christmas 2026, while his redevelopment vision for Euston would require relocation of certain existing rail services during constructions.
Sir David also said that constructing the London stage of the project represented HS2’s “biggest challenge”.
In addition, decisions would be needed on London commuter connections and a link between the West Coast main line and the cross-London Crossrail scheme.
John Longworth, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said businesses would support many of the plans.
“But HS2 will only reach its true potential if it is a fully-functioning national network, which includes linking it to HS1,” he said. “Business people will be concerned that this part of the development has been put on hold.”