HS2 could be forced to run fewer trains and at slower speeds in order to keep the high-speed rail project within budget, the company’s chief executive has said.
The government-backed infrastructure development has faced criticism for “misleading MPs” with price estimates that were hundreds of millions of pounds too low, following fears that costs were spiralling out of control.
It has now emerged that the leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom, questioned the “viability” of the project at a meeting of the all-party parliamentary rail group in November, prompting HS2 to suggest a number of potential cost-cutting measures.
In a letter following the meeting, Leadsom told the HS2 Ltd chief executive, Mark Thurston, she was aware he had conceded that “a number of changes to the project may have to be considered in order to keep it within budget and on time”.
The economising options discussed included potentially lowering train speeds of up to 225mph (360km/h) by about 30mph, changing from a slab to a ballast track and reducing the number of trains per hour from 18 to 14, according to the MP for South Northamptonshire, an area through which the HS2 route will pass.
“My constituents are naturally concerned that changes to the project could undermine the business case, negatively affect the benefit-cost ratio, and reduce the value for taxpayers’ money,” she said.
Leadsom has sought assurances that the project can be delivered “on time and on budget without impacting the business case or affecting the basis upon which it was agreed by parliament”, adding that Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, has made clear that the timely delivery of the project was “imperative”.
On her website, she said the possible changes could “have a substantial impact on the business case for the project”.
Responding, Thurston said HS2 was in the process of ensuring the project was “on time and within budget”, stating that Leadsom had correctly referred to a number of options to reduce costs that he set out when asked at the rail group meeting.
“However, I was also clear that HS2 Ltd is working to the scope and budget of the project which the government has set, and for which detailed debate in parliament has taken place,” he said in a letter.
“If, at some point in the future, we are instructed to consider any of these options, then more detailed work on the effect of such changes would of course take place.
“I can assure you that any impact on communities and the findings within the environment statement would be fully investigated and discussed.”
It was reported that the changes would result in capacity being reduced by the equivalent of up to 8,800 passengers an hour during peak times.
Phase one of the £56bn high-speed rail link will open between London and Birmingham in December 2026 before the railway is extended to Crewe, Manchester and Leeds. It will also serve locations on the existing mainline network, such as Liverpool, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow.
A spokesman for HS2 Ltd declined to make a further comment.