Clarity urged over High Speed 2 detail

Government is urged today to set out a realistic timetable for delivering High Speed 2 and clarify important details about the project’s second phase.

The House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee says that the Department for Transport must confirm this autumn whether phase one between London and Birmingham will open in 2026 or the year after. The committee also describes cost estimates associated with phase two as “volatile” and says they must be firmed up urgently.

Committee chair Meg Hillier adds there is uncertainty over how High Speed 2 will integrate with the rest of the transport system and voices concern at the departure of the project’s chief executive Simon Kirby at the weekend.

“The Government has promised significant benefits to taxpayers in return for their investment in High Speed 2, expected to run to more than £55Bn,” Meg Hillier said.

“Despite this Parliament and the public are still in the dark about crucial details: not least when the railway will open, how much it is expected to cost and precisely where it will go.

“The announcement that chief executive Simon Kirby is leaving the company adds to the uncertainty enveloping a project on which strong and stable leadership is vital,” she added.

The committee pointed out that the cost estimates for phase two currently exceed available funding by £7Bn. And it remains to be convinced that proposed savings of £9Bn can be made without adversely affecting the benefits of the programme.

There is also concern about a lack of clarity over plans for the rail scheme in South Yorkshire. HS2 Ltd’s recommendation to the Department that a planned station be moved from Meadowhall to Sheffield Midland is one example, it says, of the significant uncertainty that remains about plans for phase two.

“Local authorities must know central Government’s intentions to ensure they can plan effectively for regeneration and maximise the potential for growth near HS2 stations,” today’s report states.

In response to the report the Department for Transport said it is the role of the Public Accounts Committee to ask questions of major projects like High Speed 2 and that it welcomed the scrutiny.

A spokesman added: “The Government is fully committed to HS2 and the project is on time and on budget. We are keeping a tough grip on costs and pressing ahead with plans for phase two. Further details are due to be announced this autumn.

“Improving regional infrastructure is vital in supporting regional growth and building an economy that works for everyone. HS2 is a key part of this, and will be the backbone of our national rail network.”

♦ Simon Kirby’s departure as High Speed 2 chief executive after two and a half years has been seized upon by campaigners against the rail scheme as “a serious blow”.

But HS2 Ltd insists that Simon Kirby, who now joins Rolls Royce, has helped to “recruit and shape a world class team” which will continue under his successor.

A successor to Simon Kirby – who was thought to be Britain’s highest paid civil servant on a salary of £750,000 – is currently being sought. Following his departure it was announced that Amey’s former chief executive Mel Ewel will join the board of High Speed 2 as a non executive director.

Stop HS2 campaign manager Joe Rukin said: “The departure of Simon Kirby will be a serious blow to those who champion HS2, though many of us are at a complete loss to see just exactly what it is he has done to justify his three quarter of a million pay packet.”

In a statement released by High Speed 2, Simon Kirby said: “It has been a huge honour to have been chief executive and to have been involved in creating a leadership team made up of the best talents from this country and elsewhere. I have absolute confidence in their ability to delivery the project.”

High Speed 2 chairman David Higgins said the project will miss Simon Kirby’s “experience and leadership” but wished him well.