Britain’s HS2 high speed rail line linking London to the north of England is likely to reach Manchester before Leeds, a government minister has signalled, raising doubts over whether the planned eastern leg to Yorkshire will be built.
Andrew Stephenson, HS2 minister, said on Thursday that the government “will be bringing forward legislation for the high-speed line into Manchester as soon as practical”. He made no mention of the branch to Leeds.
It followed an announcement last week by the Department for Transport that work would begin on legislation for the western leg to Manchester but not the eastern leg to Leeds.
The government finally confirmed this month that it would build the long-delayed 250mph line from London to Birmingham and Crewe and backed the planned further Y-shaped extension to Manchester and Leeds.
But last week it also announced an Integrated Rail Plan, to be finalised this year, assessing “the appropriate mix of high speed line and upgrades of conventional network”.
Leaders in the East Midlands and Yorkshire fear that could mean downgrading or scrapping their part of the £106bn project, part of what is called Phase 2b. It follows a review by Douglas Oakervee, former HS2 chairman, that said there was scope for saving money by reducing speed or upgrading existing networks.
Midlands Connect, representing the region’s leaders, on Thursday demanded assurances that any legislation for Phase 2b, including the direct eastern branch from Birmingham to Leeds, must be approved during this parliament.
“We are also seeking confirmation that the eastern leg of Phase 2b is constructed . . . first,” Maria Machancoses, director of Midlands Connect, told the Financial Times.
Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, a lobby group, said: “The businesses we represent are crystal clear: High Speed North must guarantee all of the new lines previously committed to. Anything less would be a failure to deliver the Northern Powerhouse and the benefits of transforming the UK by closing the north-south divide.”
The DfT said the government was committed to delivering HS2 to Leeds via the East Midlands, but did not specifically endorse the existing route plan. It said: “The final design of this section of route will be informed by our ambitious Integrated Rail Plan.”
In Manchester, this means connecting it with the proposed Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) scheme. This £39bn project would improve links between the north’s big cities from Liverpool to Hull and Newcastle via Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds and use some HS2 track.
Mr Stephenson said: “The plan will examine how HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail can best work together, alongside wider investment in transport for the north and the Midlands.”
The phase from Birmingham to Crewe will not get parliamentary approval parliament until later this year, while the northern legs from Birmingham to Leeds and Crewe to Manchester have not even started the legislative process so is unlikely to get consent before 2024.
More than £8bn has been spent on the project since preparatory work began 11 years ago. Construction on the route between London and Birmingham is expected to start this spring.