Incoming HS2 Ltd chairman David Higgins has said consideration should be given to bringing forward construction of the northern section of the £50bn mega project.
The Network Rail chief executive, who starts work at project promoter HS2 Ltd on 1 January 2014, said he would look at building phase two of the High Speed 2 (HS2) rail line alongside phase one.
Under current plans, phase one from London to Birmingham will open in 2026 with phase 2 from Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds opening six years later.
Asked whether he would consider building from the North, Higgins told MPs on the Commons transport select committee last week: “We should certainly look at it.”
He said he would look to speed up the progress of a bill to enable work to begin on the northern section of the line. This is currently expected to gain Royal Assent in 2020.
“That’s a long way from now,” said Higgins. “You could build stage one between now and [gaining] Royal Assent for the second bill. Surely we can make that quicker?
“If we can, then all options are open.”
He added: “If you are in the North you want to see the benefits earlier. I don’t think people want to wait until 2032 or 2035 to see the benefits.”
HS2 Ltd technical director Andrew McNaughton played down the suggestion. He accepted that there was a view from the supply chain that the UK has the capacity to build phase two more quickly than phase one.
And speaking at a Railway Engineers Forum technical seminar on high speed rail at the ICE on Monday, McNaughton said that if Royal Assent for the second hybrid bill could be delivered more quickly than planned, then “you could see a number of years being dropped off the scheme”.
However, he said that the current plan was predicated on the Treasury smoothing out the annual spend on the project to replicate a similar spend per year as is currently happening on Crossrail, and in a way that minimises pressure on the public purse.
Higgins also told the committee that the revised business case for HS2 would prove it was a project worth pursuing. This is due to presented to Parliament by the end of the year.
“When the business case is fully discussed in Parliament I think it will be very, very strong. It is a national project, dealing with a long-term problem we’ve had in this nation.
“When the full facts are laid out, it will be a very strong case.”
But he conceded that there was much work to do convince the public.
“The issue will be getting public and Parliament’s confidence that this major investment in public money can be done responsibly, in the most cost effective way, and that the communities adjacent to the railway line will benefit the most,” he said.
“I’m not sure we’ve done the best job of explaining to those communities, listening to them and delivering that.”
Higgins said the speed of HS2 services was an aside to its main functions. “Everyone is focused on speed,” he said. “It has never been about speed, it’s been about capacity and connectivity between the North and the South and between the great cities in the North.”
He warned that many great rail projects had struggled to prove their worth before they were built.
“The Jubilee Line Extension didn’t pass the value for money test; HS1 nearly fell over but for the secretary of state intervening; Crossrail andThameslink are 20 years late because they failed value for money tests,” he said.
He questioned the model that limits assumptions about the growth in demand for rail travel when calculating the benefits of HS2.
“You shut growth off at 2035, which I understand for most projects, but not for one that doesn’t finish until 2033,” he said. “That’s got to be wrong.”
He also said the economic benefit of enabling people to spend more time in offices and less on trains which has been attributed to HS2 would be rethought.
“In the new strategic business plan, that element of the justification will be reduced,” he said.
The Department for Transport was quick to play down talk of building HS2 from its northern end. A spokesman said: “We are starting with the London to Birmingham section because it is the southern end of the West Coast Mainline where the capacity crunch needs tackling first.
“However, we will work hard to complete the northern sections more quickly than 2032/33 if possible.”