The eastern link of the route that will travel through the East Midlands into Yorkshire, known as phase 2b, could be dropped and the money saved spent on improving rail links across the North, such as the proposed Northern Powerhouse Rail.
A review into HS2 is due to be published in the coming weeks alongside the Government’s final decision on whether to proceed with the project.
An early draft of the report by Douglas Oakervee leaked before Christmas rejected the idea of cutting back the Birmingham to Leeds leg of the railway.
Industry insiders suggest phase one of the line from London to Birmingham will go ahead, as will the first part of phase two linking Birmingham to Crewe. But Boris Johnson is eager to find cost savings after HS2 Ltd, the public company that oversees the development of the railway, admitted last year the forecasted costs had ballooned to £88bn.
The money saved could be spent on improving rail links across the North
“It is being touted that the money saved could be transferred into developing a railway across the North along the lines of Northern Powerhouse Rail,” a source said.
Another industry source said phase one was already written into legislation and all necessary property and land was purchased ready to push ahead with it. “It will be difficult, though not impossible to ditch phase one. But phase 2b was always going to be more complex, going through towns and metropolitan areas, so it would make sense to drop this part of the project,” one source said.
Any decision to proceed with Northern Powerhouse Rail, which aims to improve rail links from Leeds to Manchester and Manchester to Liverpool, would feed into Downing Street’s plans to “level up” the country outside London.
The Prime Minister is also under pressure from some of his own MPs to scrap it. His adviser Dominic Cummings branded it a “white elephant” and transport adviser Andrew Gilligan is also opposed.
But any move to ditch the eastern leg of HS2 will be strenuously opposed by northern leaders. Judith Blake, Leeds City council leader warned: “Cancelling HS2’s eastern leg would seriously undermine this Government’s claim to be seeking to level up the North of England. The Y-shape of the HS2 network was developed precisely because it was recognised that high-speed rail via Manchester would not meet the economic needs and ambitions of the east of the country.”
Receive more HS2 analysis every weekday lunchtime by signing up to the i on politics newsletter here
Boris Johnson has been warned he will face a backlash from Conservative MPs should he give HS2 the green light. The Prime Minister is expected to give the go-ahead to the London to Crewe section of the project.
The Tory MP Victoria Prentis, who chairs the HS2 Review Group, branded it a “complete waste of money”. “We were assured when MPs voted on it that it would cost £55bn, now it has gone up to over £100bn,” she said. “There are an awful lot of MPs, including those newly elected in the North, that believe it is a bad idea and want to see the money spent elsewhere.”
A report by the Wildlife Trusts warned HS2 “will destroy precious carbon-capturing habitats”. New MPs in former Labour voting areas are understood to be eager to see public money spent on transport projects that will have an immediate impact. Ms Prentis added: “They want improved buses and bypasses.”