TO be fair to Boris Johnson, he did promise to review HS2 – Britain’s new high-speed railway line – before he became PM.
The problem is that the terms of reference, which have now been confirmed, leave open the possibility of the £56bn scheme being scrapped altogether – or only being built as far as Birmingham as many have suspected all along.
This is mistaken. Given how HS2 is critical to increasing capacity on the rail network so more commuter services can operate on existing lines, the review should be focusing on how the scheme – Britain’s largest ever infrastructure project – can be improved to provide more value for money for taxpayers.
And while there are some important points in the remit, namely the integration of HS2 with Northern Powerhouse Rail, Mr Johnson’s approach gives succour to opponents who believe HS2 cannot be justified on environmental or economic grounds.
This is a powerful lobby – predominantly but not exclusively in the Home Counties – which will need to be countered by political and business leaders from across the North if HS2 is to stay on track at a time of unprecedented political uncertainty at Westminster.
It means restating how a new high-speed line across the Pennines, one of Mr Johnson’s top policy priorities, is dependent on HS2 going ahead so both rolling stock – and infrastructure – can be fully utilised in order to keep costs down.
It also means pointing out how a new line, despite the impact that it will have on some communities along the proposed route, is the only way – like it or not – to ensure more trains run at peak times and meet the needs of business.
But it should mean, if these arguments are well made, that HS2 can – after this hiatus – proceed with a greater degree of political unanimity, provided, of course, Mr Johnson stays true to his word.