Government ‘does not understand how HS2 will function as railway’

The cancellation of the northern leg of HS2 has raised “urgent unanswered questions” and the government does not yet understand how the £67bn high-speed railway will now function, according to a scathing report from parliament’s spending watchdog.

The remaining London-Birmingham line will be “very poor value for money”, the public accounts committee of MPs said, with costs now forecast to significantly outweigh the benefits.

Rishi Sunak announced the cancellation of the northern leg of the line to Manchester in October, promising to divert £36bn into alternative transport schemes known as Network North, including filling potholes.

The cross-party committee said many ramifications of the decision remained unknown, including the impact on other promised rail schemes and how land compulsorily bought to build north of Birmingham would be disposed of.

The report added: “Crucially, the Department [for Transport] does not yet understand how HS2 will operate as a functioning railway following recent changes.”

It said issues included how the HS2 line will connect to the west coast mainline, with new trains unable to run as fast as old ones on curving tracks.

Sunak also announced that the final few miles of HS2 into London Euston and the station redevelopment would have to be built with private investment. The MPs said they were “highly sceptical” that private funding would be found for the terminus, and the government did not yet have a “plausible proposition”.

They warned that there were “urgent decisions the department must make” on Euston or it would incur much greater costs from stopping and restarting work.

Meg Hillier, chair of the committee, said: “The decision to cancel HS2’s northern leg was a watershed moment that raises urgent and unanswered questions, laid out in our report.

“What happens now to the phase two land, some of which has been compulsorily purchased? Can we seriously be actively working towards a situation where our high-speed trains are forced to run slower than existing ones when they hit older track?”

She said that after a decade of warnings from the public accounts committee over soaring costs of HS2, the government was “locked into the costly completion of a curtailed rump of a project”.

The final costs have not been confirmed but HS2 Ltd executive chair Sir Jon Thompson said last month that the London-Birmingham line’s costs were now an estimated £67bn at current prices. The phase one budget was £44.6bn in 2019 prices.

A spokesperson for HS2 Ltd said: “We’ve been clear about our cost challenges, which have been compounded by significant levels of inflation. HS2 Ltd is now under new leadership and implementing changes across the programme aimed at controlling costs and learning the lessons of the past.”

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A DfT spokesperson said: “We disagree with the committee’s assessment. Our plans for Euston have already received extensive support from the private sector … we have repeatedly made clear we will continue to deliver HS2 at the lowest reasonable cost, in a way that provides value for taxpayers.”

The mayors of Birmingham and Manchester, Andy Street and Andy Burnham, have been drawing up independent plans to better connect the cities after outcry at the decision to cut HS2 short.

Work on the first phase of HS2 beyond Euston is continuing, with significant milestones including the start of construction of Birmingham’s new Curzon Street station and the main Chilterns tunnels almost excavated.

Henri Murison, chief executive of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, said: “The Oakervee Review, published when Rishi Sunak was chancellor, made clear it was the northern sections of the route to Leeds and Manchester which justified the cost of the section into London.

“Instead, the north is paying the price of having to placate vociferous local opponents with expensive tunnels through the Chilterns.”


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