The high-speed rail project is facing yet another controversy, as reports suggest that the government is set to scrap the eastern leg of HS2 between the Midlands and Leeds.

The Transport Department is expected to instead announce a new rail plan on September 18, involving £96bn ($123.1bn) of funding for new routes in the North and Midlands. Sources said the impact of scrapping the Leeds leg of HS2 would make journeys longer by 20 minutes, which will fuel intense scrutiny.

The project was initially meant to connect London with the city centres of Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. However, Conservative MPs have expressed concerns about the cost of the eastern leg connecting the West Midlands and Leeds.

The reports have drawn strong criticism from The Northern Powerhouse Partnership, a group of northern local authorities and business leaders, who argue that scrapping the eastern leg will reduce the benefits of the section being built now between Birmingham and London.

Scrapping the eastern leg adds to the already intense controversy surrounding HS2

HS2 was originally priced at £32.7bn ($41.9bn), but in 2013 this estimate was revised up for the first time by £10bn ($12.8bn). At the time, the Department for Transport stated that it would not necessarily need to use all of the £42.7bn ($54.7bn) budget.

Since then, costs have steadily risen. A government-commissioned review in 2019 estimated that the final outlay for HS2 could reach a staggering GBP106bn ($135bn), over three times the original budget. With the recent revelation that pandemic related costs have added a further £1.7bn ($2.1bn), it remains to be seen how high the true cost of HS2 will reach.

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By GlobalData

These cost rises combined with the latest plans to scrap a key aspect of the project add to the already insurmountable controversy surrounding the high-speed rail development.

The validity of the project has also been thrown into question

In addition to rising costs, Covid-19 has created a complicated scenario where the economy needs HS2 to aid recovery, but at the same time, there is no longer the same necessity for a high-speed rail network.

The government and supporters of HS2 have been vocal about the economic benefits that the infrastructure project will bring. Such claims come even in the face of escalating costs. Given the fact that Covid-19 has placed the UK economy into recession, economic benefits for the country are of vital importance. However, the pandemic has also reduced the need for a high-speed rail network.

The pandemic has changed the way people work, with remote working becoming the new normal for many. The effectiveness of carrying out meetings via platforms such as Zoom has reduced the need to travel for face-to-face meetings. While supporters of HS2 have heralded the link it will create between the North and the South, the pandemic has essentially rendered this to be less relevant.