The crucial ministerial decision over whether to proceed with the £32bn High Speed 2 scheme has been delayed until 2012 while options for upping environmental protection of the Chilterns are considered.
A Department for Transport spokesman confirmed that transport secretary Justine Greening would not be making her decision before parliament’s Christmas recess begins on 21 December as planned.
The decision will now come in the New Year. The spokesman said Greening will be making a statement explaining the delay in the “next couple of weeks”.
Reports have suggested that the delay is to allow time to explore options for increased tunnelling in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
“There are political realities but it is incredibly important that this doesn’t give way to parochial pressure groups”
Director of high speed rail lobby group Greengauge 21 Jim Steer
NCE understands that this could be in the form of a 2.4km long tunnel through Welsh secretary Cheryl Gillan’s Chesham and Amersham constituency. It would most likely extend an already planned small section of tunnel towards Little Missenden, a transport expert told NCE.
Reports suggested that the extra tunnel could cost an extra £500M. But the government’s report on High Speed 2, published in February, put the average cost of tunnelling for the 59km needed within the 225km long London to Birmingham route at £48M/km, suggesting that these costs are not for tunnelling alone.
Industry insiders said that the figure was speculative or included additional environmental mitigation measures.
Building HS2 through the Chilterns has long been a contentious issue and experts told NCE that the decision to delay giving the green light was an exercise in politicking and not likely to mean the scheme would be abandoned.
However, they warned that if the government made too many concessions the future of the project would be in jeopardy.
“Do the whole route or none at all. But [the full route] can’t go to parliament at the moment because it has not been fully costed”
RAC Foundation director Stephen Glaister
“There is a general acceptance that the decision [to go ahead] is going to take longer,” said Jim Steer, director of high speed rail lobby group Greengauge 21. “And if it is made in January then that is not particularly problematic. It is perhaps a sign of the political machine at work.
“There are political realities but it is incredibly important that this doesn’t give way to parochial pressure groups.”
Steer said that one of the most damaging concessions would be to start adding in more intermediate stations that would be a “waste of public money”.
Imperial College London emeritus professor of transport and infrastructure and RAC Foundation director Stephen Glaister said that spending an additional £500M would weaken the economic case for HS2, which was already under pressure. The London to Birmingham section offers limited economic benefits compared with the economic case for building the Y route to include Manchester and Sheffield (NCE 10 November).
Glaister added that more of a problem was that adding in more tunnels would make journey times longer because trains must travel slower in tunnels.
A question of speed
The original HS2 report to government in March 2010 stated that the aim would be to allow trains to travel at up to 400km/h “where practicable” while acknowledging that to design tunnels “much larger” to accommodate such speeds would be “very expensive”, so typically speeds in tunnels would be up to 320km/h.
Glaister said any loss of time benefit was crucial because of the short distance between London and Birmingham.The current plans offer a saving of 35 minutes on the London to Birmingham route compared with conventional rail.
The latest report on the coalition government’s preferred route, published in February, already increased the tunnelled sections from the 10% in the March 2010 proposals to 13%. Glaister called for the government to have a bigger pause for thought to allow proper appraisal of the full Y route.
“Do the whole route or none at all,” said Glaister. “But [the full route] can’t go to parliament at the moment because it has not been fully costed.”