Rail industry figures have reacted angrily to the transport secretary appearing to signal the scrapping of HS2’s eastern leg.
The current £100bn high-speed rail project follows the plans set out by the last Labour transport secretary, Lord Adonis, in 2009. It proposes a Y-shaped link from London to Birmingham with a western branch to Crewe and Manchester and an eastern branch to Nottingham, Sheffield and Leeds.
Work on the London-Birmingham section is already well under way, and the administrative groundwork is being carried out for the leg to northwest England.
The eastern leg, due to be completed by 2040, would provide connections beyond Leeds to the existing East Coast main line to York, Newcastle and Edinburgh.
But in an interview with the Financial Times, Grant Shapps appeared to suggest the eastern leg – also known as HS2 phase 2b – may never be built.
He said: “We want to make sure we get trains to Leeds in a way that actually benefits people on the network and not blindly follow some plan invented 15 to 20 years ago which no longer benefits people.”
Mr Shapps said: “Midlands Rail Hub and Northern Powerhouse Rail are things, they’ve been invented, they hadn’t been when HS2 was first designed.
“We need to work these things together. Are we doing things in the best way and in the right order?”
The alternative appears to extending trains from London via a new trans-Pennine high-speed line, dubbed HS3, via Manchester to Leeds. It would offer no benefit to travellers between London, Nottingham and Sheffield.
Nor would it significantly cut the current Birmingham-Leeds journey time of almost two hours. The HS2 target time is 46 minutes for the 116-mile journey between the two cities.
Senior rail figures have watched the government’s ebbing support for the eastern leg of the project with growing concern.
Nigel Harris, editor of Rail magazine, said: “Be in no doubt: scrapping HS2 Phase 2b will be catastrophic for transport and decarbonisation.”
Gareth Davies, a railway engineer and writer, tweeted: “The eastern leg of HS2 is the most important section of the new line.
“Without it, HS2 remains a bypass for the West Coast main line, massively diminishing its benefits for the whole country.”
The shadow transport secretary, Jim McMahon, said: “People in the North, Midlands and beyond know all too well about the Tories’ record of failure on transport – because it affects their everyday lives.
“Endlessly reannouncing years-old promises just won’t cut it.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Transport (DfT) said: “The Integrated Rail Plan will soon outline exactly how major rail projects, including HS2 phase 2b and other transformational projects such as Northern Powerhouse Rail, will work together to deliver the reliable train services that passengers across the North and Midlands need and deserve.”