Boris Johnson has been urged to completely overhaul the High Speed 2 rail project by a former government adviser on rail, who has warned that the scheme in its current form is “misguided”.
Professor Roderick Smith, an expert in railway engineering at Imperial College London and a former chief scientific adviser at the Department for Transport, said the prime minister needed to make changes at this “watershed moment” to save the project.
The prime minister is set to announce within weeks whether HS2 will go ahead based on an official report into the project. He is under huge pressure from politicians in the midlands and north of England to press ahead.
The UK’s biggest infrastructure project, which aims to improve travel times between the north and the south of England by creating high speed rail connections between some of its biggest cities, has been hit by a decade of political and financial problems. The cost has soared by £26bn to £88bn.
In August, the prime minister commissioned Douglas Oakervee, the former chair of HS2, to assess the project.
Writing in the Mail on Sunday, Mr Smith, a high speed rail specialist and chief scientific adviser at the DfT in 2012-14, said the government was failing to learn lessons from Japan’s high-speed system.
“Because the client for HS2 is the DfT, a body which lacks significant knowledge of high-speed rail, the project has been badly specified and many costly mistakes have been made,” he wrote.
Mr Smith told the FT he was “frustrated and annoyed” that the government appears to have stopped listening to advice, particularly if that advice is based on experiences of high-speed railways abroad.
In his article for the Mail on Sunday, he said Japan’s system owes its “astonishing reliability” to being a sealed rail system — its trains do not run on the rest of the network. However, HS2 trains will run on intercity lines, which would lead to high-speed trains being delayed by slower trains at connecting points.
He also called the plan for a HS2 terminus at Euston in London a “complete disaster”. He said it would be much more convenient to use Old Oak Common in west London as HS2’s terminus.
But according to an early draft of the review, Mr Oakervee has ruled out the idea of ending the line at Old Oak Common instead of the heart of the capital at Euston.
He has also rejected a proposal of cutting back the eastern leg of the project’s second phase, from Birmingham to Leeds — an idea discussed by a 10-person advisory panel.
But he has suggested that cost savings could be found by cutting the number of trains per hour from a maximum of 18 to 14 on the line linking London with Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.
The government was forced to announce this summer that the project was massively over budget and that the second phase, beyond Birmingham, would come in up to seven years late, with a completion date of up to 2040. The first phase is now delayed by five years to 2031.
Earlier this year the House of Lords economic affairs committee called for the work on the line to be paused until the economic case for the project had been made, saying the costs were out of control.
Mr Smith said he remains a “firm supporter of HS2” but said the project had now reached a critical moment with a new prime minister apparently willing to contemplate an overhaul of the scheme.