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MPs question HS2’s ‘volatile’ costs and ‘unrealistic’ timetable

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The government must set out a ’realistic timetable’ for the construction of High Speed 2 and clarify details about the costs of phase two, MPs have warned

The public accounts committee report (PAC) looking into the planning and delivery of HS2 said there was still ’considerable uncertainty’ about its delivery, while cost estimates for phase two of the line were ‘volatile’ and needed firming up.

According to the AJ’s sister title Construction News, PAC chair Meg Hillier said the public was ‘still in the dark’ about details on ‘when the railway will open, how much it will cost and where the railway will go’.

She added: ’The public must be confident that the grand vision for HS2 does not blind the government to the finer points, which have implications for many people’s lives.’

The committee said the timetable for phase one was ‘unrealistic’ and urged the government to decide quickly on whether it intends to open the line in December 2026, or push it back by a year.

HS2 is currently 60 per cent confident that phase one will open in December 2026, according to a report published by the National Audit Office. It has been asked by the government to increase this to 80 per cent.

HS2 is currently looking into pushing back the completion date by 12 months to raise this 60 per cent confidence level.

The Department for Transport (DfT) is expected to reveal the final route for phase two this autumn, but the committee said there was still ‘significant uncertainty’ about phase two’s costs and this would need to be addressed in the autumn announcement.

As part of George Osborne’s Spending Review last November, cost estimates for phase two of the line were found to be £7 billion over its initial agreed funding of £28.5 billion.

A Cabinet Office-led review earlier this year identified more than £9 billion of savings through more mature and detailed estimates into the unit costs of viaducts and bridges associated with the project.

The committee said it was not clear why these assumptions could not have been applied earlier, and questioned whether these changes could be made without adversely affecting the scheme.

The PAC report also said the benefits of the route changes proposed by HS2 for phase two, as well as the potential disruption it could cause communities living near the line, had yet to be properly assessed.

The proposal by HS2 to change the location of Sheffield’s HS2 station from Meadowhall to Sheffield Midland station was ’one example of significant uncertainty’, the report said.

The committee’s findings follow the news that chief executive Simon Kirby is leaving HS2 to join Rolls-Royce after two-and-a-half years with the company.

Hillier said Kirby’s shock departure also ’added to the uncertainty enveloping the project’.

Industry figures have called on HS2 to appoint a ’world class CEO as soon as possible’ to reassure the supply chain the project was moving forward.

The committee also questioned how HS2 would work with the existing railway network and called for the DfT to publish a full plan for how the UK’s rail network would operate once HS2 is completed.

Other concerns were raised around whether HS2 would be able to secure enough skills to build the line and if local authorities would be able to find enough investment for the billions of pounds of regeneration around new stations.

The committee said the DfT should report back to it in 12 months’ time on progress in securing skills for the project.

It also called on the government to check whether local authorities had plans in place to identify external sources of funding and financing for associated regeneration projects.

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