The Transport Secretary has added to growing speculation over the future of the eastern leg of HS2, saying ministers will not “blindly follow” plans drawn up almost two decades ago.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Grant Shapps signalled that a major rethink of the high-speed rail project between Birmingham and Leeds could be in order.
He told the paper: “We want to make sure we get trains to Leeds in a way that actually benefits people on the network and not blindly follow some plan invented 15 to 20 years ago which no longer benefits people.”
Construction work on phase one of the high-speed rail project from London to Birmingham is ongoing.
Phase 2a is planned to run from Birmingham to Crewe, and phase 2b from Crewe to Manchester, and from Birmingham to Leeds.
But after the Government-commissioned Oakervee Review warned last year that the final bill for HS2 could reach £106 billion at 2019 prices, there were concerns that the eastern leg of phase 2b could be scrapped.
This was further compounded when the National Infrastructure Commission said in December that the focus should be on regional connectivity.
Mr Shapps told the Financial Times the creation of the Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) scheme, which is aimed at connecting cities in the region on an east-west route, should also be taken into account.
He said: “Midlands Rail Hub and Northern Powerhouse Rail are things… they’ve been invented, they hadn’t been when HS2 was first designed.
“We need to work these things together. Are we doing things in the best way and in the right order?”
Meanwhile, No 10 would not be drawn on when a plan for railways in the North and Midlands – which is expected to set out the future of HS2 and other schemes – would be released.
On Monday, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “It wouldn’t be right for me to comment ahead of the plan being published.
“We’ll set out exactly how major rail projects such as HS2 phase 2b and other projects such as Northern Powerhouse Rail will work together to deliver the reliable train services passengers of North and Midlands need and deserve.”
Asked when the plan would be unveiled, the PM’s spokesman said: “I don’t have a specific timetable for you, it will be published shortly.”
Shadow transport secretary Jim McMahon called Mr Shapps’ comments “insulting”.
“You cannot trust a word the Tories say,” he said. “Expecting people to accept endless rebadging of promises made years ago is insulting.
“Poor transport connectivity continues to hold back the North, Midlands and beyond and the Conservatives’ record is one of total failure to deliver.
“Communities that stand to lose out once again – thanks to the Government’s incompetence and inability to keep projects on track – will rightly feel betrayed by yet another broken promise dressed up as a new announcement.”