The government has committed to the eastern leg of High Speed 2 (HS2) after mounting fears that the section of line to Leeds could be scrapped.
At a virtual event for the Policy Exchange thinktank, transport secretary Grant Shapps said the government would "complete HS2 and include HS2 on the eastern leg to Leeds".
Fears that the eastern leg could be mothballed have been growing in recent months, after the DfT announced plans to split the phase 2b bill in two, separating legislation needed to build the western and eastern legs.
Those fears were exacerbated by recommendations made by the NIC's Rail needs assessment, which recommended prioritising the western leg to Manchester, and this month's Queen's Speech, which said the western leg would be taken forward in the coming year but contained to reference to the eastern leg.
However yesterday Shapps said that the benefits of both legs could, in fact, come sooner than his original expectation of 2040 or 2050.
“We think we could bring that forward quite dramatically by building it in a smarter way,” he added.
According to Shapps, more details will be revealed in the government’s long-awaited Integrated Rail Plan (IRP), which will set out how major projects such as HS2, Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR), the Midlands Engine will be phased and connected.
It was due to be published “early” this year, but was delayed due to local election purdah rules. It is now expected to be published in the coming weeks.
Shapps said: “The only question that we have is how to better integrate [the eastern leg] with plans which were developed a very long way since HS2 was first dreamt up all those decades ago, and that pertains to the NPR.”
Through Transport for the North (TfN), the North's political and business leaders have also called on the government to "urgently" publish the IRP to avoid delays to delivery of schemes including NPR and HS2.
They said the plan is also critical to address congested hotspots on the North’s rail network, as well as addressing the short and medium-term projects such as the Transpennine Route Upgrade, which received a £317M funding boost this week.
TfN interim chief executive Tim Wood added: “Whilst the government has committed to delivering the projects, there are question marks hanging over the detail until the IRP is unveiled.
“It’s now critical that the government publish the IRP so the North can plan with certainty around the railway investment that will be delivered. We can’t risk delays to NPR and HS2 arriving in the North and the economic boom both would bring – including up to 74,000 new jobs with NPR."
Wood added that TfN is "ready to work closely with government to get spades in the ground on the [NPR] project as soon as possible".
He described the IRP as a "once-in-a-generation opportunity to re-write the story of the North’s railways and address the legacy – and resulting problems - of underinvestment".
"It will not only set the long-term trajectory for rail spending, but hopefully address the short and medium-term projects we need to tackle congestion today," he added.
“We urge the government to prioritise its publication so that work can progress on delivering the major components of a northern railway fit for the next century.”