A review of the High Speed 2 railway was ordered today, in a move that could leave its future in doubt until after an autumn general election.
An inquiry will decide “whether and how” the £56 billion project should proceed, including measures to keep ballooning costs under control.
Douglas Oakervee, the former chairman of HS2, will be in charge of the assessment, with former rail chief Lord Berkeley as his deputy.
Mr Oakervee said: “The Prime Minister has asked me to lead this important review … to advise the Government on how and whether to progress with HS2.”
The review is due to be completed in autumn but no exact deadline was given, fuelling speculation that it will not report until after any snap election — a move that could reduce the political impact of controversy in constituencies affected by the line.
In a dramatic step, it will consider scrapping the expensive portion of the line running through London using tunnels to link with Euston.
Terms of reference published by the Department for Transport said it would consider “making Old Oak Common [in west London] the London terminus, at least for a period”.
The review will consider fundamental questions including whether the entire project should be scrapped and look at “cancellation costs” as well as whether costs could be cut by changing, connections and service levels.
It will also examine potential benefits, affordability and efficiency, deliverability and phasing, and look at the HS2 links with Northern Powerhouse Rail, a scheme that the Prime Minister supports.
The report will look at whether to sack HS2 Ltd from running the project, with the terms saying it will recommend “whether HS2 Ltd is in a position to deliver the project effectively, taking account of its performance to date and any other relevant information”.
A key question will be whether the latest costs estimates “are realistic” and whether the taxpayer could get money back through better development schemes around stations.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the report would be “rigorous” and should come up with “clear advice” on what to do. He said Mr Johnson had been clear “that investments must be subject to continuous assessment of their costs and benefits”.
HS2’s new chair, Allan Cook, is reported to have warned officials in Whitehall that it could bust its current budget by up to £30 billion, coming in at over £86 billion. Some MPs believe the final costs are likely to be over £100 billion.
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