The boss of HS2 has said he hopes the UK “gets behind” the controversial high-speed rail project, as tunnelling work gets under way in the Chiltern Hills in Buckinghamshire.
A giant tunnelling machine named Florence, after Florence Nightingale, began digging a ten-mile stretch under the Chilterns near the M25 on Thursday.
Chief executive Mark Thurston described the start of a three-year dig in the Chilterns as “a major step forward” for phase 1 of the project.
Yet major concerns about the cost and environmental impact of building the high-speed railway remain. The government-commissioned Oakervee Review warned in 2018 that the final bill could reach £106bn.
Climate activists sprayed pink paint on to the London office of HS2 last week in protest at the CO2 emissions created by the construction work.
Mr Thurston said: “HS2 is a way of getting investment into the economy when we know the economy is struggling on the back of the pandemic.
“I would hope the country gets behind what is a national endeavour and takes pride in the fact that this is creating jobs for British people.”
HS2 minister Andrew Stephenson claimed it was “odd” for environmentalists to oppose the railway. “You’ve got the Green Party in France and other countries that have championed high-speed rail.
“It seems odd that in the UK we have environmental campaigners who still do not see the benefit in a low-carbon mass infrastructure project.”
He said “cutting-edge techniques” are being used to reduce carbon emissions during construction, and claimed an electric railway is “far better than having people in cars”.
A total of 10 tunnel boring machines will be deployed between London and the West Midlands for Phase 1 of the high-speed railway.
The line will be extended from Birmingham to Crewe in Phase 2a, with Phase 2b planned to run from Crewe to Manchester, and from Birmingham to Leeds.
But Tuesday’s Queen’s Speech raised fears that the eastern leg could be scrapped due to the cost of the project.
A bill providing the powers to extend the line to Manchester was announced alongside the speech which set out the government’s agenda, but no mention was made of the stretch to Leeds.
Asked if he could guarantee that the eastern leg will be built, Mr Stephenson replied: “We are committed to bringing the benefits of high-speed rail to the Midlands and the North.”
The Florence tunnelling machine will operate as a self-contained factory with a crew of 17 people working 12-hour shifts to keep it running continuously.
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