HS2 line ‘could be built sooner than timetabled’

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The new high-speed rail line to Yorkshire could be completed several years earlier than planned if the Treasury agrees to quicken its spending on the project, a rail executive has said.

Professor Andrew McNaughton, technical director of HS2 Ltd, said the UK has the capability to finish the £42.6bn line significantly sooner than its planned completion date if politicians have the collective desire to do so.

Work is due to begin on the new line in 2017, with the first section between London and Birmingham opening in 2026. The second part, with branches to Sheffield, Leeds and Manchester, is scheduled for completion in 2033.

But Ministers are under pressure to bring forward the date by which the North will begin to feel the benefit of the new line, as the Government battles to maintain support for the project.

Earlier this month Sir David Higgins, the chairman of Network Rail who takes over as boss of HS2 in January, said he planned to look at ways in which the scheme might be speeded up.

Speaking yesterday at a conference on high-speed rail in Westminster, Prof McNaughton said this proposal would require politicians to push the necessary legislation through Parliament quickly, and for the Treasury to quicken its spending plan.

“The current (spending) profile for HS2 is a profile agreed with Treasury,” he said. “There is a view that the country has got the capability to create HS2 quicker.

“Certainly, in terms of pure delivery, you can see a number of years being dropped off, depending on when the Bill for HS2 Part Two got Royal Assent.

“If Royal Assent was achieved quickly for the second Bill; if the Treasury relaxed its profile... then physically you could deliver the second stage earlier.”

Prof McNaughton warned there were still “ifs and buts” about the idea, and that for the Treasury to speed up its annual spend on the project would mean “other things having to be deferred”.

He stressed he was not personally advocating a new approach to the project.

“The Government’s got a clear plan, and frankly within HS2 having a clear plan that runs for 20 years is quite a privilege in this country,” he said. “We’re not going to do anything at all which starts another line of questioning. We’ve got a plan, we’ve got a budget, and we’re now going to focus on that.”

The Government launched what David Cameron termed its “fightback” on HS2 last month after a summer of negative headlines about the project, which is designed to massively increase the capacity of Britain’s rail network while speeding up journey times between major cities.

The Prime Minister joined with senior colleagues including Nick Clegg, George Osborne and Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin in making speeches and statements in support of HS2, following critical reports from groups including the Commons public accounts committee.

Yesterday it was the turn of the Government’s new Rail Minister, Baroness Kramer, to underline her commitment to the scheme.

In her first speech since being appointed in the recent reshuffle, the Liberal Democrat peer told people to ignore the “scare stories” about the rising cost of HS2.

“Of course we need to build HS2 within or under budget,” she said. “We will. Please ignore the scare stories which have been floating around in recent months, using numbers like £70bn.

“It is £42.6bn, spent carefully over several decades. And that is an upper limit, with a contingency – £14.4bn in reserve – which we are determined to bear down on.”

There was chaos on Yorkshire’s existing rail route to London yesterday after problems with overhead power lines caused the shutdown of the East Coast main line.

All trains between Peterborough and Grantham were halted, with passengers warned to expect delays of at least two hours.

East Coast advised people to travel “only where absolutely necessary”. It said yesterday’s tickets would remain valid today.

Many MPs were caught up in the chaos as they returned to Westminster, with Shadow Energy Secretary Caroline Flint missing a key debate in Parliament.

Colne Valley MP Jason McCartney, who chairs the all-party Parliamentary group for rail in the North, said the shutdown once again made the case for the construction of a “new main line”.