This week’s newspapers carried the intriguing suggestion that Boris Johnson might re-order the construction of High Speed Two so that the railway’s northern sections are constructed first.
The new review of HS2 ordered by Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, is theoretically empowered to make a decision on whether or not to proceed with it at all.
Yet whilst the idea of scrapping it altogether will strongly appeal to many activists and MPs, there doesn’t appear to be any real expectation that this will happen. It would certainly be an unusual start for a Prime Minister with a track record of enthusiasm for high-profile infrastructure projects, and key political supporters of the project such as Andy Street are on the commission.
One might perhaps expect Dominic Cummings, who has been quoted as calling HS2 a “disaster zone”, to perhaps drive a move against it. But as he attempts to overhaul the Government and prepare the country for a no-deal exit from the European Union in the autumn, it’s unlikely he’ll have the bandwidth to imprint himself as totally on the Prime Minister’s agenda as some myth-makers might suggest.
Shifting the order of construction, on the other hand, might be more plausible. At present the London-to-Birmingham stretch of the route is slated to open in 2026, with the northern extensions not expected to be running until 2033.
Lord Forsyth, who chairs the House of Lords Economic Committee, has warned the Government not to allow cost overruns on the southern leg of the line to leave insufficient funds to complete the northern sections, which would connect Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds.
This warning might chime with Lord Berkeley, a “railway expert and Labour peer” who has been appointed as deputy chair of the review. Berkeley is a strong critic of HS2, repeatedly challenged Department for Transport’s figures and warning about spiralling costs.
Building the northern stretch of the line first would be a big offer, in both practical and symbolic terms, to the North of England – no small consideration for a Prime Minister who, as a former Mayor of London, might risk being viewed as capital-focused. It could also open up the possibility of embarking on ‘HS3’, otherwise known as Northern Powerhouse Rail, sooner, or even extending the high-speed network to Scotland… and beyond?