HS2 Ltd has dropped all preparatory work on its phase 2b Eastern leg from Birmingham through the East Midlands following an instruction from the Department for Transport, its chief executive has confirmed.
Speaking to the Transport Select Committee, HS2 Ltd's chief executive officer, Mark Thurston, said: 'At the moment we are only working on phase 2b west. We are only focused on that. The company has been asked by the Department to focus on the route into Manchester and the eastern leg will play out in the fullness of time. We expect it to be part of the Integrated Rail Plan (IRP).'
The comments come as the Government's IRP - designed to support HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail connectivity - is set to suffer a further delay and will not be released until September at the earliest.
Mr Thurston added: 'We are focused on producing a budget and a plan, working on the hybrid Bill to get Royal Assent somewhere around 2024 or 2025, subject to parliamentary timetables, for the section to Manchester. That is where our focus is at the moment. The company is not doing any work on anything else at the moment.'
Mr Thurston highlighted that HS2 phase 2b originally referred to both the eastern and western legs as one integrated project: 'the whole railway north of Crewe into Manchester and from here in the West Midlands all the way through the East Midlands to Leeds. That is not now playing out that way.'
'We are taking the western link now as a very discrete project and we wait to be guided by the department on what we do with the eastern link.'
HS2 Ltd said: 'We recognise that this causes uncertainty and our Eastern Leg community engagement teams remain in place to support you.'
The comments will further inflame long-running fears over whether the Government plans to delay or even cancel the eastern leg of HS2 altogether to cut back on costs after it was revealed HS2's price tag had spiralled to more than £100bn.
Mr Thurston was joined for the committee meeting in Birmingham by West Midlands mayor Andy Street, who pointed out the business case rests on the benefits of building the entire route.
'If you look at the business case you only get the repayments on the southern leg if you complete all of the Y. There is a very hard point there that your numbers, that £45bn or £46bn for 2b, assume, as Mark said. Both are built to get the repayment, frankly, on the investment that was made on the core in the southern link. Purely from a business point of view, there is the need to build the whole lot to get the return,' he said.
The Conservative mayor also revealed his own doubts about the eastern leg, stating: 'I am realistic that there will probably be a serious delay in the eastern leg of 2b. I believe the Government will still commit to doing it but will not be specific about the timing of when.'
HS2 Ltd has previously published architect's concepts for the new Leeds station
Speaking to Transport Network, the DfT has sought to downplay Mr Thurston's comments, suggesting there had been no policy change and pointing out that construction of the eastern section has not started yet.
It also pointed out that the pause came after last year's Oakervee Review of HS2, which recommended delaying work on the phase 2b hybrid Bill until after the IRP.
However, Oakervee said the IRP should be published by the summer of 2020. It was also recommending a pause on work for the entire 2b section not just the eastern leg.
The Government has since split the hybrid Bill in two different bills for the western and eastern legs as Oakervee highlighted that having smaller bills/phases may allow easier scrutiny of proposals in Parliament and faster construction.
HS2 Ltd said: 'A Western Leg bill is being prepared for deposit to Parliament in early 2022, or sooner if possible. Whilst plans may be subject to change following the Integrated Rail Plan, the potential for significant change to the Western Leg is more limited.'
A DfT spokesperson said: 'The Integrated Rail Plan will soon outline exactly how major rail projects, including HS2 phase 2b and other transformational projects such as Northern Powerhouse Rail, will work together to deliver the reliable train services that passengers across the North and Midlands need and deserve.'
Having first been expected by the end of 2020, the IRP is set for another delay. Transport for the North (TfN) documents for a board meeting on 27 July revealed that the IRP will be delayed 'until at least after 6 September 2021'.
Last winter, the DfT asked TfN to delay its Strategic Outline Case (SOC) for Northern Powerhouse Rail until after the IRP has been published. It was due to be submitted in March 2021.
Public meetings revealed TfN board members' frustration with this but they had little choice. The DfT said consistency between the IRP and SOC would improve overall programme delivery and 'allow more rapid alignment around single route options than envisaged in current plans – which assume a further twelve months work in some cases before detailed design work can begin'.
The TfN documents state that the earliest possible SOC would now be submitted 12 months later than previously programmed (March 2022), and potentially much later.
'This would in turn result in delays to the programme and start of construction, meaning that the potential gains in the programme to be made by rephasing the SOC will be outstripped by the continued delays to the IRP, delaying the step-change in connectivity, delivering transformational, clean, economic growth across the North of England brought about by Northern Powerhouse Rail,' the TfN document stated.