Revealed: Proof PM knows cutting HS2 would lead to chaos

Rishi Sunak is moving to cutHS2 despite being warned in a confidential government-ordered study that doing so will cause chaos for passengers, The Independent can reveal.

The leaked paper – drawn up ahead of HS2 talks between the prime minister and his chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, and marked “Official-Sensitive” – was ordered this year by the Department for Transport as it sought to explore cost-saving measures after the budget to rebuild Euston, at the line’s southern end, ballooned by £2.2bn.

But the document, seen by The Independent, found that failing to rebuild the busy railway hub as planned under the £45bn first phase of the project would lead to travel chaos, including endless queueing and the “gross exceedance of standard passenger comfort levels” through overcrowding. It also warned that station closures could become “commonplace” within the next decade.

Rail industry sources said that Euston – Britain’s busiest intercity terminal – would probably have to be closed at peak times “on an almost daily basis” in the same way that some stations on the London Underground are shut to prevent crushes.

It comes as the prime minister prepares to take the stage at the Conservative Party conference next week following The Independent’s revelations that he is planning to cut the high-speed rail project – and amid a barrage of criticism from Tory grandees, businesses, and regional mayors.

Boris Johnson has become the latest figure to warn that Mr Sunak and Mr Hunt would be “out of their minds” to abandon HS2, joining the likes of George Osborne and Michael Heseltine, who have criticised the government’s lack of commitment to building the full network.

Mr Johnson – who also cut back the project’s leg to Leeds when he was prime minister and Mr Sunak was chancellor – said the decision on the railway was a “pivotal moment” for the UK “at a time when we need to show, as a country, that we still have the requisite guts and ambition”.

Demand at Euston is growing, even without HS2, and transport planners were counting on the cramped 1960s building being “relieved” by the proposed station upgrade, which was set to be delivered as part of the high-speed rail project.

It is “reasonably clear that multiple areas of Euston station reach capacity” even without the HS2 service delivering its extra passengers to the station, the leaked paper says, spelling out the findings in modelling.

The warning comes after London mayor Sadiq Khan and transport planners raised concerns that stopping the new high-speed railway line short in the west London suburbs would overwhelm the capital’s new Elizabeth line, which – despite being overcrowded already – would have to be relied on to carry passengers into central London.

Euston station is approaching capacity and will increasingly have to close for safety reasons (Getty)
Euston station is approaching capacity and will increasingly have to close for safety reasons (Getty)

A rail industry source said: “This is another example of the government not understanding the consequences of their actions. Without the rebuild planned under HS2, Euston will [descend into] total chaos within a decade, and will probably have to close pretty much every day for safety. Anyone who has been there recently knows it’s already rammed during busy periods, and only getting worse.”

They added: “The Underground station is desperately under capacity for the scale of foot traffic today, let alone after HS2 begins operation. These are reasons to get it right, not abandon the work.”

The latest document seen by The Independent was intended to examine alternatives to the current rebuild plans, but concluded that there were significant problems with all of the alternative options.

The least damaging cost-saving measure was deemed to be to proceed with the existing proposals, but to split them into two phases – though The Independent understands that transport bosses are concerned that this would cause more problems than it solves by spreading the disruption over a longer period.

The Independent revealed this month that Mr Sunak is considering cutting the final approach of HS2 into Euston and instead terminating the line at Old Oak Common in the west of the capital in an effort to save money. He is also considering scrapping the final section of the line into Manchester.

But the growing backlash, which has also split the cabinet, means that a final decision – originally expected ahead of Tory conference next week – has been put back until at least the autumn statement.

A Government spokesperson said the government did not comment on leaks, adding: “The HS2 project is already well underway with spades in the ground, and our focus remains on delivering it.”