Fresh uncertainty has been cast over plans for linking the North East into the high-speed rail network being built to connect London to Birmingham and Manchester. The eastern leg of HS2 from Birmingham to Leeds is probably facing ‘serious delay’ – if it goes ahead at all – according to evidence given to the House of Commons Transport Committee.
Mark Thurston, chief executive of High Speed Two, the government-owned company building the railway, has told MPs that it is currently working only on the western leg to Manchester and is awaiting guidance from the Department for Transport about the eastern leg to Leeds.
HS2 is planned in phases, with Phase 1 running from London Euston to Birmingham at a cost of £45bn, Phase 2a from Birmingham to Crewe at a cost of £7.2bn and Phase 2b in two separate Y-shaped legs at a combined cost of between £32bn and £46bn. The western leg of HS2b would run from Crewe to Manchester and the eastern leg from Birmingham through the East Midlands to Leeds. From Leeds it would join the existing East Coast Main Line, enabling high-speed trains to run on to Darlington, Durham and Newcastle.
But Mr Thurston told the House of Commons Transport Committee on July 14: ‘At the moment we are only working on phase 2b west. We are only focused on that. The company has been asked by the Department to focus on the route into Manchester and the Euston leg will play out in the fullness of time. We expect it to be part of the Integrated Rail Plan. We are focused on producing a budget and a plan, working on the hybrid Bill to get Royal Assent somewhere around 2024 or 2025, subject to parliamentary timetables, for the section to Manchester. That is where our focus is at the moment. The company is not doing any work on anything else at the moment.’
He added: ‘The assumption at the time those [cost] numbers were published was that phase 2 was going to be done as one integrated project—the whole railway north of Crewe into Manchester and from…the West Midlands all the way through the East Midlands to Leeds. That is not now playing out that way. We are taking the western link now as a very discrete project and we wait to be guided by the Department on what we do with the eastern link.’
Andy Street; Mayor of the West Midlands, told the committee: ‘You do not need to build the whole of 2b eastern leg high speed for West Midlands business to get what it needs for connectivity across the midlands. Although I have always been a huge believer in the full network of HS2, and the business case explains why you need to do the whole lot, the pressing issue for us from an operational point of view is connectivity within the midlands’.
He added: ‘I am realistic that there will probably be a serious delay in the eastern leg of 2b. I believe the government will still commit to doing it but will not be specific about the timing of when.’
Clarification of the government’s intentions will now probably have to await publication of its Integrated Rail Plan, which has already been delayed since the end of last year and seems unlikely to appear before the autumn at the earliest. Bernadette Kelly, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Transport, told MPs on the Public Accounts Committee on June 24 that the Integrated Rail Plan would be published ‘soon’.
She said: ‘I have made the broad point many times at this committee that the government remain committed to bringing the benefits of high-speed rail to the north and the midlands, so there is that.’
When asked by Shaun Bailey, Conservative MP for West Bromwich West, about the connection to Leeds, Ms Kelly reiterated: ‘As you know, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have restated on many occasions their commitment to a full Y network, so I don’t think this is a completely open question. Clearly, there are different ways in which things can be delivered and the integrated rail plan will need to set out the detail on that.’