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HS2’s eastern link hits the buffers as the line to Leeds is shelved amid soaring costs

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The Eastern leg of the HS2 rail line to Nottingham, Sheffield and Leeds has been ‘shelved’ amid concerns about soaring costs.

Ministers have ordered HS2 Limited to halt all planning work on the Eastern leg and focus solely on the Western route to Manchester.

A Tory source said the Eastern leg was unlikely to be formally cancelled because of fears of a political backlash in the East Midlands and Yorkshire.

Ministers have ordered HS2 Limited to halt all planning work on the Eastern leg and focus solely on the Western route to Manchester

Ministers have ordered HS2 Limited to halt all planning work on the Eastern leg and focus solely on the Western route to Manchester

The DfT last night insisted the Eastern leg had not been formally ¿shelved¿. A spokesman said the project could survive in some form when the Government¿s delayed Integrated Rail Plan is finally published

The DfT last night insisted the Eastern leg had not been formally ‘shelved’. A spokesman said the project could survive in some form when the Government’s delayed Integrated Rail Plan is finally published

But, with no work in progress and no target date for completion, the source said the project could be left to ‘wither on the vine’. 

The move could slash tens of billions of pounds off the £107billion bill for the controversial rail route at a time when the Department for Transport (DfT) is under pressure to save money.

But critics warn it could jeopardise the business case for the entire project, as well as undermine Boris Johnson’s pledge to ‘level up’ the whole country.

The DfT last night insisted the Eastern leg had not been formally ‘shelved’. A spokesman said the project could survive in some form when the Government’s delayed Integrated Rail Plan is finally published.

But the timing of the revelation is potentially embarrassing for the Prime Minister ahead of a planned ‘infrastructure week’ push by No 10 next week.

Mr Johnson is expected to make announcements on broadband rollout and other infrastructure projects in a bid to show that his ‘levelling up’ agenda has not been knocked off course. HS2 is Britain’s biggest single infrastructure project.

Supporters claim it will revolutionise transport links and provide vital capacity for the future. But it has been plagued by soaring costs and political uncertainty.

Construction has started on the first phase of the line from London to Birmingham. Plans to extend the line to Crewe are also advanced. The next phase would see the line split, with one leg going to Manchester and the other to the East Midlands and Leeds at a cost of up to £46billion.

But HS2 chief executive Mark Thurston told MPs this month that the future of the Eastern leg was uncertain.

He said the original plan had been to carry out the scheme as one integrated project but the firm was now ‘only focused’ on the route to Manchester. He added: ‘The company has been asked by the department to focus on the route into Manchester, and the Eastern leg will play out in the fullness of time.’ West Midlands Mayor Andy Street told MPs that while he would like to see the entire line built, there were cheaper ways of improving rail links to the East.

HS2 chief executive Mark Thurston told MPs this month that the future of the Eastern leg was uncertain

HS2 chief executive Mark Thurston told MPs this month that the future of the Eastern leg was uncertain

In a joint letter to the PM this week, Nottinghamshire County Council¿s Tory leader Ben Bradley and Leeds City Council¿s Labour leader James Lewis called for an immediate commitment to the Eastern leg

In a joint letter to the PM this week, Nottinghamshire County Council’s Tory leader Ben Bradley and Leeds City Council’s Labour leader James Lewis called for an immediate commitment to the Eastern leg

Asked what he expected the Government to announce later this year, he said: ‘An absolute commitment to the Western leg. I am realistic that there will probably be a serious delay in the Eastern leg… I believe the Government will still commit to doing it but will not be specific about the timing of when.’ The move will infuriate local leaders in the East Midlands and Yorkshire.

In a joint letter to the PM this week, Nottinghamshire County Council’s Tory leader Ben Bradley and Leeds City Council’s Labour leader James Lewis called for an immediate commitment to the Eastern leg.

Mr Bradley, who is also Conservative MP for Mansfield, said: ‘HS2 East is more than a railway line – it is fundamental to our vision for levelling up communities throughout our country.’

The DfT last night insisted that the Eastern leg could still go ahead as part of the Integrated Rail Plan which was due in the spring but has been delayed until the autumn. A spokesman said: ‘The Eastern leg has not been shelved.

‘Work has been paused while the Integrated Rail Plan is put together.’

ALEX BRUMMER: What a way to ruin the railway 

Amid escalating costs and post-Covid pressure on the public finances, the Government is under increasing pressure to officially halt work on the Eastern leg of HS2 connecting London and Birmingham to Leeds which is due to open between 2036 and 2040.

Critics argue that HS2, a monumental piece of infrastructure and the biggest modernisation of Britain’s railways since Victorian times, is nothing more than a Boris Johnson vanity project – and a vast waste of money.

As with all infrastructure projects, the cost has soared from £32.7billion when the project was approved in 2012 (long before Johnson moved into Downing Street) to £107.7billion at last count.

Mr Johnson should stand firm on HS2¿s Eastern leg and not allow himself to be dissuaded by the doubters and penny pinchers

Mr Johnson should stand firm on HS2’s Eastern leg and not allow himself to be dissuaded by the doubters and penny pinchers 

Among the reasons for the surging costs are a series of environmental studies that required the contractors to build 45 miles of tunnels and 37 miles of viaducts to protect ancient forests and the countryside – and to ensure minimum disruption to life in the prosperous Tory shires. (Ironically, such expensive protective measures were not enough to prevent the Conservatives being given a bloody nose in the recent Chesham and Amersham by-election which saw the Liberal Democrats emerge victorious.)

There are, however, high political stakes at play here. Mr Johnson has put levelling up front and centre of his Government’s agenda.

Certainly any decision to axe the Leeds link will be seen as a wilful act of neglect in the ‘red wall’ constituencies in Yorkshire and the North East which voted heavily for the Tories in 2019.

An alternative case is often made that the North would benefit far more by investing in and modernising existing commuter networks as well as creating a fit for purpose trans-Pennine link. But in reality money already has been allocated for better local Northern connections. High on the agenda, after HS2, is another high-speed link connecting the Northern cities.

Critics of HS2 have been given renewed impetus by the pandemic, with a sharp drop in railway passengers and more meetings conducted digitally.

But all the evidence from Japan, pioneers in high-speed rail travel, and parts of Continental Europe is that investment in more efficient travel brings prosperity.

Commercial and residential housing development in and around the proposed stations for HS2 has already boosted investment in Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, and the brownfield sites close to Euston station in North London.

When Britain’s biggest bank HSBC opted to base its new UK headquarters in Birmingham, the proposed connections and speed of travel between North and South were undoubtedly a factor.

Critics of HS2 have been given renewed impetus by the pandemic, with a sharp drop in railway passengers and more meetings conducted digitally

Critics of HS2 have been given renewed impetus by the pandemic, with a sharp drop in railway passengers and more meetings conducted digitally 

Leeds already boasts an embryonic financial hub. Providing it with a superfast connection to London could see major financial and professional firms diverting to West Yorkshire.

A Tory Government has a respo-nsibility to safeguard the public finances, but one should not confuse current department spending, which must be financed each year, with capital projects funded over many years and which bring a great economic legacy. Paying for infrastructure is like buying a house on a mortgage over 25 or 30 years.

The UK is littered with brave but abandoned projects, including a 1970s plan and even foundations for an airport at Maplin in the Thames Estuary which by now could be relieving the pressures on an overstretched Heathrow.

It was axed because of the inability of successive governments to think long-term.

At its inception and through years of legislation, the proposals for a high-speed railway won support from both sides of the House. For decades green lobbyists have urged people and freight to get off the roads and on to trains. HS2 will do just that while delivering a great jobs and growth boost to Northern England.

Mr Johnson should stand firm on HS2’s Eastern leg and not allow himself to be dissuaded by the doubters and penny pinchers.

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