Fears have long been growing that the scheme’s eastern leg is to be significantly trimmed or even scrapped as part of the upcoming integrated rail plan.
The Independent has now learned that a new station in Leeds and a new line connecting the city to South Yorkshire are both likely to be given the go-ahead – but, from there, trains heading south will have to run on existing track for much of the way to Birmingham.
It means that journey times from Yorkshire to London will be significantly longer than originally proposed and existing bottlenecks on the network will go unresolved resulting in little extra capacity.
Treasury plans to mothball the eastern leg completely are understood to have been spiked after furious Tory MPs representing “red wall” seats along the route baulked at the prospect – first revealed in The Independent earlier this month.
Instead, trains heading south will now leave Leeds via a new purpose-built HS2 line but will transfer to existing tracks in the village of Clayton on the border of the West and South Yorkshire counties. From there, they will run at slow speeds for at least 60 miles before possibly joining with a new line at the East Midlands Parkway station.
A purpose-built hub in the Nottinghamshire village of Toton – which would have connected Derby and Nottingham to HS2 – will be dropped altogether.
Sources suggest the compromise to build some new track in Yorkshire came after intense negotiations between the Treasury and No 10, which sees the project as crucial to its “levelling up” agenda.
It is understood the new Leeds to Clayton development survived the axe because it is fundamental to the proposed Northern Powerhouse Rail – another new line that will eventually run east to west, connecting Leeds to Manchester.
“Coronavirus has come along and changed the numbers,” one northern transport official said. “It’s squeezed what they say can be afforded. That’s the guts of it. They are looking to make savings and the sense is that No 11 especially thinks it prudent to trim back on the eastern leg.”
While the new plans will allow Boris Johnson to say he is pressing ahead with an eastern leg of HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail, the level of scaling back will be bitter pill for many to swallow.
The fact capacity will not be increased on at least a 60-mile section of the eastern line will mean the East Midlands could miss out on many of the economic benefits it had hoped the project would bring.
The reduction also means that no extra trains will be able to run between London and the northeast.
“No one was asking for a gold-plated service – it makes sense to save money,” one northern insider said. “But is this close to what we were promised? It’s pretty shoestring stuff.”
Jim McMahon, Labour’s shadow transport minister, described it as a Tory “betrayal”.
He said: “Labour has already committed to the full delivery of HS2, and that includes the eastern leg. We’d work with mayors and leaders in our regions to make that happen.”
A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “The integrated rail plan will soon outline exactly how major rail projects, including HS2 phase 2b and other transformational projects such as Northern Powerhouse Rail, will work together to deliver the reliable train services that passengers across the north and Midlands need and deserve.”