Boris Johnson has indicated that the High Speed 2 rail project will get the go-ahead within weeks, after saying “the only thing to do is keep digging” rather than abandon the project.
The prime minister, interviewed by Sky News’ FYI children’s current affairs programme, accused the “hopeless” management of the rail line from London to the north of being “profligate”. The price tag for the controversial project rose from £56bn to £88bn last summer — with some experts now believing it could exceed £100bn.
But in a scoop for 10-year old cub reporter Braydon Bent, Mr Johnson gave his clearest indication yet that it will soon receive formal approval. “The people who did it spent far too much money, they were profligate with the way they did it. They just wasted money. And the whole way it was managed was hopeless,” he said.
The project was “in a mess” but the government was now trying to “sort it out” and work out a way forward, Mr Johnson said. “In a hole the size of HS2, the only thing to do is keep digging. That’s what you’ve got to do. It’s a big hole.”
About £8bn has already been spent on the project, which will provide high-speed services from London to Birmingham and then on to Manchester and Leeds.
Douglas Oakervee, the former HS2 chair who was asked by Mr Johnson to review the project, found its budget could increase to as much as £106bn. Meanwhile, the National Audit Office, the Whitehall spending watchdog, said it was impossible to “estimate with certainty what the final cost could be”.
However, Mr Johnson has long been minded to proceed with the scheme as a way to improve capacity on the rail network and to help “level up” the less prosperous regions of the UK.
Chancellor Sajid Javid emerged as a reluctant supporter of the project this week as ministers edge towards a final decision. Ministers were forced to admit in September that not only had the price of the scheme risen by about £30bn but the full line would not open until 2040, at least seven years late.
Mr Johnson is under pressure from business leaders, northern council leaders, many MPs and West Midlands mayor Andy Street to proceed with the scheme. But many other MPs are sceptical and would prefer the money to be spent on more immediate local transport projects.
In conversations with ministers in recent days, the prime minister has emphasised the need to find cost savings in order to justify giving the project the go-ahead. Mr Oakervee recommended running 14 trains an hour instead of 18 to cut costs, while also pausing to re-examine whether the northern leg of the route could feature a mix of high-speed trains and conventional rolling stock.