CrossRail has already been on hold for two years. Any further delay would contradict the assurance given last week by the Prime Minister, John Major, in his Guildhall speech, that joint public and private sector projects - such as CrossRail - would be strongly supported.
Bovis and Sir Alexander Gibb & Partners, along with Schroder, the MVA Consultancy, Geoconsult and P&O Developments, have been asked to conduct a cost-effectiveness study. The main recommendations are supposed to be ready by the end of next month.
However, the Department of Transport has privately admitted that if the report recommends any significant changes, the new specifications will not be ready by 25 January, when the private member's Bill that proposes the CrossRail project goes to its committee stage in the House of Commons. This stage of the Bill, which was first laid before Parliament two years ago, has been adjourned since the 19 October, when the DoT was not ready with its specifications.
The committee's chairman, Tony Marlow, said then he would take a pretty dim view of any further delays. If they occur, he is not likely to reconvene the committee and the Bill will fail. The only way CrossRail could then go ahead is if Mr MacGregor lays an order before Parliament, which would then be followed by a public inquiry in each of the local authorities through which the line would pass - a process that would be avoided if the Bill were successful.
CrossRail estimates that each inquiry could last five years, and although many would be concurrent, the whole process could take a decade.
Stephen O'Brien, chief executive of London First, the association of businesses promoting the capital, said any delay would choke off the prospect of private funding for CrossRail. 'The private sector can only put money on the table when it knows CrossRail is certainly going ahead, the terms of reference and the timescale.'
Brian Wilson, Labour's transport spokesman, said the consultants' appointment was a 'scandalous piece of further prevarication' and said the Treasury was trying to kill the scheme. 'With John MacGregor at the Department of Transport, it has become like a benefits agency for consultants.'
The CrossRail project has already cost British Rail over pounds 100m in design and preparatory work. It has been promoted as a way for commuters to travel from east to west London and vice-versa, without having to change on to the underground system.