With the Tories and Lib Dems taking a trouncing at the local elections and Birmingham voting against a mayor, it is understandable that the likelihood of a rather important Government U-turn has somewhat slipped under the radar.
But it seems probable that the Queen’s Speech opening the new session of Parliament will be minus a previously announced commitment to bring forward a bill paving the way for the first phase of the HS2 high speed rail line from London to Birmingham.
The hybrid legislation required to secure planning permission for the £17 billion project is to be delayed for at least a year, according to reports.
However, given the political pressure heaped on the Prime Minister as a result of Labour’s sweeping local government victories, there are plenty of reasons for supposing that this may be the first sign that the coalition Government is now lukewarm over HS2.
Mr Cameron faces bitter opposition to the scheme from Tory MPs through whose leafy Buckinghamshire and Warwickshire constituencies the high speed rail track will run. At least one Minister has threatened to resign if the project is approved.
Of course, a year-long hold up, which would delay the completion of HS2 to 2027, might not make much difference. It is difficult to believe though that the Government’s political fortunes will be any more favourable in 2013-14 than today. And with a General Election due in 2015, it would take a very brave Prime Minister indeed to insist on pushing through plans for an expensive and controversial high speed rail link.
Were the project to be scrapped entirely, the implications for the regional economy and for public transport would be great.
According to the Department for Transport, high speed rail will create 8,000 jobs in Birmingham, including 1,400 based around a planned HS2 station at Curzon Street Station. The project has, after all, been sold by Ministers partly as a device to spread wealth from London and the South-east to the Midlands and the North.
The first phase of the 225mph route would slash journey times from the heart of Birmingham to the capital to just 49 minutes, potentially attracting millions of pounds in inward investment to the Eastside area.
The GoHS2 group, whose members include Birmingham City Council, Birmingham Airport, the NEC Group, Solihull Council and Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, claim that high speed rail would be the biggest creator of wealth and jobs in a generation, delivering £2 of benefits to every household for every £1 spent on building the rail line.
The economic value to regional economies of the completed HS2 project, including second phase lines to the North-west and North-east, would amount to £63 billion in the first 60 years of operation, according to engineering consultants Atkins.
Speculation about a delay prompted the British Chambers of Commerce to issue a warning to the Government: “Given the importance of infrastructure to our future competitiveness, business fears the signal being sent at reports that the bill enabling the construction of HS2 might be dropped from the Queen’s Speech.
“The country’s railways are almost at capacity, roads need investment and there’s no clear aviation strategy. These facts must be addressed no matter how uncomfortable they may make Ministers.”
If HS2 were to go the way of other bold UK transport proposals over the years – swept aside through a combination of parochial uprisings and Government apathy – the impact on rail services between Birmingham and London would be serious indeed unless additional investment amounting to hundreds of millions of pounds is brought forward.
The West Coast Main line will be running at capacity by 2026. One of HS2’s advantages is that the high speed route will take passengers from the overcrowded WCML, freeing up the track for more freight services. If HS2 is not built, the WCML will be a basket case within 10 years, or perhaps sooner.
Birmingham will have its glittering new New Street Station at a cost of £500 million, but as has been well documented the refurbishment will not be able to accommodate a single additional train service.
Yes, passengers will have a more pleasurable experience mingling in the huge glass-covered atriums above the platforms, and they will certainly have plenty of time to spend money in the new-look Pallasades shopping centre since the trains they wish to catch will be subject to longer and longer delays.
And in Coventry, where campaigners raged about the city not having an HS2 station, passengers will only be able to stand and watch rush-hour trains whizz past without stopping because they will be full to capacity from customers who boarded in Birmingham.