HS2 chair Sir David Higgins urges project speed-up
Building work on the northern section of the £50bn high-speed HS2 rail project should be accelerated, HS2 chairman Sir David Higgins has said.
In his new report for the government, called HS2 Plus, he says the initial part of the project should run from London to Crewe by 2027, instead of merely reaching Birmingham by 2026.
Sir David said building a new hub at Crewe was "the right strategic answer".
The second phase of HS2 could then be completed by 2030 instead of 2033.
"The section north of Birmingham to Crewe is relatively straightforward to build, and relatively lower-cost than other parts of the northern network," he told the BBC.
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said Sir David "proposes to deliver benefits, particularly benefits to the Midlands and the North, more quickly".
The government will commission HS2 Ltd and Network Rail to look at a number of Sir David's proposals in more detail.
Earlier this month, Mr McLoughlin admitted that legislation needed to build the high-speed rail project would not become law before the next general election in 2015.
Sir David Higgins was charged with finding savings in the £50bn bill for HS2. He hasn't done that. Instead, he's said to the politicians: "You are the people who are forcing the cost of this project up through political uncertainty, because you have not come up with any clear decision about giving the go-ahead to this line."
The HS2 bill is trundling through Parliament at a snail's pace. It could well drag on after the next election, and that will be only to give the line the go-ahead to Birmingham. To go north of that, to Crewe, will require another piece of legislation, which could take even more time.
Sir David does appear to have brought Labour on board, by his idea of extending the line to Crewe by 2027. However, some Conservative MPs remain deeply hostile to the line, because it will go crunching through the countryside in their constituency.
Sir David called for "a more comprehensive development" of Euston station, which is HS2's London hub.
"Let's do Euston properly. Let's think about it now. It's not going to be easy, I have to say, to redevelop that station. It is a mess," Sir David told the BBC.
Mr McLoughlin said: "More can be made of Euston station. It is a significant opportunity to maximise the economic potential of the line and regenerate a site that has been neglected."'Catalyst for change'
Sir David questioned plans to link HS2 to the HS1 Channel Tunnel high-speed rail link at St Pancras.
He said: "The current proposed HS1-HS2 link is, I believe, sub-optimal and should be reconsidered."
"It has functional limitations. Let's scrap this, it's a £700m saving."
There should be a study to look at other methods of linking HS1 and HS2, he said, ranging from a whole interchange at Euston and St Pancras through to "a more ambitious high-speed link".
The first phase of HS2 is currently scheduled to link Birmingham and London by 2026.
Under the existing plans for phase two, tracks to cities including Leeds and Manchester would be built by 2032 or 2033.
The projected cost of the project is about £43bn - including a contingency of more than £14bn - but this estimate does not include the trains, which will cost about £7bn.
Sir David said HS2 was "vital for the future of the country", adding it could be "a catalyst for fundamental change".
If his plans to speed up phase two were adopted, he said, "it would deliver the benefits of HS2 - in terms of better services to the north - much sooner".
Scottish Government Transport Minister Keith Brown said it was "disappointing to note that Scotland has been omitted from the plans".
"The business case for high speed rail is stronger if Scotland is included from the start," he said.'Log-jam of approvals'
Sir David said the speed that HS2 was passing through the Westminster legislative process was "a risk" to the project, and urged legislators not to delay the project unduly.
"Infrastructure is critical to this nation. We can't have a log-jam of approvals process," he said.
Sir David was responsible for ensuring London's Olympic Park was built on time and on budget as chief executive of the Olympic Delivery Authority. He has been HS2 chairman since January.
His appointment was viewed as a sign the government was sticking to its plans for the controversial project despite opposition, including from some of its own MPs.
Business Secretary Vince Cable said in an interview with the Observer on Sunday that there was a "compelling case" to speed up the extension of the HS2 rail link northwards.
He said it would "ensure the economic benefits can be shared sooner by everyone around the country".'Value for money'
However, shadow chancellor Ed Balls has said previously that a Labour government will sign "no blank cheques" for the controversial high-speed rail link, saying HS2 needs to represent "value for money" to retain Labour's support.
Shadow transport secretary Mary Creagh said: "David Higgins has made it clear that there are significant savings to be made if David Cameron gets a grip of this project and stops all these delays.
"The government must now act so this scheme can be delivered under budget."
Opponents of the scheme question how easy it will be to speed up the construction of HS2.
Richard Houghton, spokesman for HS2 Action Alliance said: "Bringing forward work will not be as simple as it sounds.
"Unless there are plans to circumnavigate the statute book, then a separate Hybrid Bill will have to be introduced."
HS2 Action Alliance, which represents a coalition of groups opposed to the new rail link, says the project will be a "huge waste of money" and claims it will cause severe environmental damage, with the first phase alone having an impact on 130 protected wildlife sites.
Robbie Owen of Pinsent Masons solicitors, whose clients broadly support HS2, told the BBC that Sir David's report was "incisive and powerful".
"I think, in all, this [report] will hopefully help forge a much stronger cross-party consensus for the project," said Mr Owen, the head of infrastructure planning and government affairs at the law firm.
"It's crucially important to transform the economic shape of the UK and to try to rebalance the country away from all the emphasis on the South East," he said. "We just can't carry on as a country eking things out in terms of our infrastructure."