Government seeks to save money and persuade skeptics on HS2 project by accelerating its timetable


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Indy Politics

The £42bn price tag for the controversial HS2 rail link could be cut by accelerating the timetable for its construction under plans to be set out next month.

The move is aimed at reassuring critics of the scheme, who include the shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, that its costs are under control.

Sir David Higgins, the new chairman of HS2, is drawing up proposals to complete the project ahead of schedule. This would help reduce the final bill to the taxpayer, according to sources involved in the scheme.

A publicity campaign to persuade a largely indifferent public of the merits of the largest rail project for a century is also planned.

Insiders admit they have been slow to make the case for the scheme, failing to convince sceptics that all parts of the country would benefit from the high-speed link.

The first stage of HS2, linking London and the West Midlands, is due to be completed by 2026 and the second, connecting the North West and Yorkshire, is scheduled to be built by 2033.
But one source said 2033 was an “awfully long time” to wait for the project’s completion and disclosed that Mr Higgins was working on plans to speed up the timetable.

The move would save money because it would reduce the impact of inflation. The source said: “The longer it takes the more it costs.”

The current bill to the taxpayer for constructing the track is £42.6bn, comprising £21.4bn for the first phase and £21.2bn for the second phase.

The scheme’s total cost rises to more than £50bn when the estimated £7.5bn expense of new trains, which is expected to be borne by the private sector, is added. Estimates of its final cost rose last year by around £8bn.

Sir David faces pressure from across the political spectrum to reduce the overall bill to the taxpayer.

David Cameron has called for HS2 to be delivered “substantially” below budget, while Mr Balls has said an incoming Labour government would review the project, warning there could be “no blank cheque” for the scheme.

Sir David will publish a report early next month outlining potential cost savings, including by reducing the scheme’s construction period and by trimming the amount of money set aside for contingency costs.

His move will come weeks before the Bill paving the way to building the first stage of HS2 reaches a key stage in Parliament. Attention will focus on Labour’s attitude to the project following Sir David’s recommendations as cross-party backing will be crucial for a scheme that would take nearly two decades to complete.

Meanwhile, a fresh attempt to raise the profile of HS2 will be mounted in coming months.

Supporters believe that early attempts to make the case for the project were bungled, particularly in its presentation as a “whizzy” and expensive north-south link aimed at affluent business travellers.

One said: “This is about someone waiting in the rain on a platform in Milton Keynes. In the coming years these commuter lines are going to be like the Piccadilly Line with people piling in at peak times. HS2 will provide a lot more trains per hour on these routes.”

The planned publicity campaign will stress moves to improve links from HS2 to all parts of the country to counter accusations that travellers living outside London, Birmingham, Manchester or Leeds will miss out on the scheme’s benefits.