The UK government is braced for a critical report by Whitehall’s spending watchdog into the High Speed 2 rail line just as Boris Johnson is set to decide whether to proceed with the controversial £88bn project.
The National Audit Office is expected to publish its review into HS2 imminently, which will probably pile fresh scrutiny on to the scheme. An NAO report into HS2 in 2016 warned that the benefit/cost ratio of the scheme could fall if it did not keep within its then £55.7bn budget.
Since then, the estimated cost has soared by up to £30bn with completion of the first phase of the service, from London to Birmingham, delayed until 2031. The entire project is not expected to be finished until around 2040, some seven years later than the original target, the government has announced.
The publication will be awkward for Mr Johnson, who — despite being a previous critic of the scheme — has been minded to go ahead with the 330-mile railway, the biggest infrastructure project in Europe.
The prime minister fears the potential political fallout from cancelling a transport project designed to help northern England at a time when he is trumpeting his commitment to the region. The Tories swept back into power in December with a big majority after securing scores of seats in northern areas that voted Leave in the Brexit referendum, which are now hoping for extra investment.
However, Dominic Cummings, his chief adviser, has dubbed the project a “disaster zone”, while his transport adviser, Andrew Gilligan, has long been one of its most vociferous critics. They and other critics believe the money could be better spent on many smaller transport schemes in the north.
Mr Johnson is expected to publish a review into the scheme by former HS2 chairman Douglas Oakervee when he makes his final decision on whether to proceed.
Mr Oakervee has suggested that the number of trains per hour on the line could be cut from 18 to 14 to shave billions of pounds off the cost, while also recommending the construction of further stations — for example at Calvert in Buckinghamshire — and asking for greater contributions from developers when building stations.
But industry experts believe that cutting the number of hourly trains would damage the overall economic case for the project. They have also suggested that a new station at Calvert could add up to 10 minutes to the 45-minute journey from London to Birmingham.
Other suggestions, such as a proposal to avoid expensive tunnelling through London by building the HS2 terminus at Old Oak Common further out of the capital rather than Euston in the centre, would weaken the economic case for the project, experts have said. The economic case had already fallen from £2.30 for every £1 spent in 2017 to between £1.30 to £1.50, according to Mr Oakervee.
Some £8bn has been spent on HS2 since work started on the project a decade ago and the project is burning through a quarter of a billion pounds a month. HS2 employs roughly 9,000 people, about a third of whom are staff, with the remainder, contractors and consultants. This would rise to 15,000 or 20,000 if it gets the go-ahead.
If Mr Johnson signs off on the project, construction is expected to start in the spring while supporters hope that parliament will pass a bill for phase 2a, from Birmingham to Crewe, this summer. However the bill to approve the northern section of the line, which runs to Manchester and Leeds, has been delayed and is unlikely to receive approval until the second half of 2023 at the earliest.
Last year the House of Lords economic affairs committee called for work on the line to be paused until the economic case for the project had been made, saying the costs were out of control.
The post Whitehall review puts HS2 rail link under scrutiny appeared first on Financial Times.