On the right track? HS2 moving forward with huge uncertainty

The digging, the building and the laying of tracks is moving forward – so why is there so much uncertainty over HS2?

Tunnel progress in the West Midlands
Tunnel progress in the West Midlands

The company today proudly tweeted a picture of its engineers underneath Long Itchington Wood in Warwickshire, where they are now half way through completing a tunnel.

People travelling in parts of Staffordshire will also be familiar with preparatory works, which have left a scar across the landscape.

Yes ministers are continually having to justify the scheme amid intense speculation that large parts of it will be ditched in order to save money.

The latest to be dragged in front of the press is rail minister Huw Merriman.

He insisted this week the Government is “absolutely committed” to delivering HS2 trains from London to Manchester and to the east of England.

But he also balanced that with a well-rehearsed “but”, adding that “cost pressures” must be examined.

Curzon Street Station in Birmingham

Meanwhile, Labour is demanding that ministers come forward to “categorically deny” rumours that the Department for Transport is working on plans to “slash” the high-speed rail project.

Phase One of HS2 involves the railway being built between London and Birmingham, with the line extended from the West Midlands to Crewe in Phase 2a.

Phase 2b will connect Crewe to Manchester, and the West Midlands to the East Midlands.

The planned extension to Leeds was shelved in November 2021.

It was recently reported HS2 might not run to its planned central London terminus at Euston due to rising costs.

For Labour, shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh called for certainty over the project.

She told the House of Commons: “Briefings, leaks and rumours about the future of HS2 are pouring out of this department.

“Will the minister categorically deny that his department is working on any plans that would slash what is left of the eastern leg and leave Yorkshire and the North East permanently cut off altogether by cutting high-speed platforms at Euston?”

Mr Merriman replied: “We are absolutely committed to delivering HS2 trains from London to Manchester and, of course, going over to the east as well.

“But of course we have to look at cost pressures, it’s absolutely right that HS2 focuses on costs, that should be expected of the Government and the taxpayer, we’ll continue to do so.

“But I can tell her I am absolutely committed, as is the Secretary of State (Mark Harper) and the entire department, to delivering HS2 and the benefits for this country.”

The terminus in the West Midlands is the crowning glory for the project, described as being at the “heart of the high-speed rail network in the West Midlands”.

HS2, in its publicyty blurb, boasts: “It will be one of the most environmentally-friendly stations in the world.

“Sitting at the heart of the high-speed rail network, it will give people more choice about where they live, work and play.”

The station, with a distinctly curved roof, is set to be net zero carbon in operation and adopt the latest eco-friendly design and sustainable technologies, including capturing rainwater and utilising sustainable power generation, It will feature more than 2,800m2 of solar panels located on platform canopies.

While no-one is doubting the engineering excellence of the project, there is a familiar story developing on publicly-funded infrastructure projects – it is set to cost far more than was originally promised.

The latest target cost of Phase One, linking London to a new station at Birmingham’s Curzon Street is £40.3 billion at 2019 prices.

A budget of £55.7 billion for the whole of HS2 was set in 2015.

Meanwhile, while the north continues to lobby for HS2 to fulfil its promise to reach Manchester and eventually Leeds, travellers in those regions are struggling with existing creaking services.

Conservative MP Jason McCartney’s argument will be familiar to long-suffering passengers on Avanti West Midlands, with cancelled services and ongoing disruption due to strikes.

He has urged the Government to strip TransPennine Express of its franchise due to ongoing problems with services for his Colne Valley constituents in West Yorkshire.

Mr McCartney said: “My hard-pressed constituents are still suffering a totally unacceptable level of cancelled rail services by TransPennine Express every morning.

“Just yesterday from Huddersfield the 6.49, the 7.01, the 7.30, the 7.46 – how on earth are my constituents expected to get to work, school, college or university?”

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