A landscape scarred forever… for nothing? Stunning drone footage reveals how HS2 construction work is still tearing up England's countryside – despite plans to scrap its northern section 'within days'

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Drone footage taken from points on Britain’s faltering High Speed Rail 2 project has revealed the enormous scars ripped into the countryside across the route with as ministers due to make a decision on the northern leg this week.

If all had gone to plan, Britain would be just two and a half years away from high-speed trains whizzing between London and Birmingham, cutting travel times by around 30 minutes.

Construction workers should now be putting the finishing touches to the network but instead, completion has been pushed from 2026 to 2029-33 and the budget has risen from £37.5billion to £98billion. 

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is reportedly so spooked by an £8billion jump in costs to complete the line to Birmingham that he is set to axe the Manchester leg which has been labelled a ‘gross act of vandalism’ and an ‘act of economic self-harm’ by former chancellor George Osborne. 

In an article for the Times newspaper with Tory grandee Lord Heseltine, the former Chancellor warned the Prime Minister about damaging Britain’s reputation and protecting his own legacy.

Infrastucture at Denham which will feature a ten mile tunnel has been described as a 'mess'

Infrastucture at Denham which will feature a ten mile tunnel has been described as a ‘mess’

The north tunnel portal (top of image) takes shape at the Chiltern Hills near Great Missenden which has been raised by the building work

The north tunnel portal (top of image) takes shape at the Chiltern Hills near Great Missenden which has been raised by the building work

Line construction at Huddlesford in Staffordshire which is considered a 'mission critical' spot

Line construction at Huddlesford in Staffordshire which is considered a ‘mission critical’ spot

He wrote: ‘Governments are remembered for what they build and create. Make this mistake, and yours may only be known for what it cancelled and curtailed.’

READ MORE: George Osborne rails against scrapping HS2 northern leg: Ex-Tory chancellor brands axing Birmingham to Manchester link ‘an act of economic self-harm’ – as ministers prepare to make decision within days

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Citing Boris Johnson’s winning message in the 2019 election, they added: ‘How could ever again claim to be levelling up when you cancel the biggest levelling-up project in the country?’

Last week, the Mail sent a drone along the entire length of HS2. Photographs show many major points are still construction sites in their early stages.

Phil Marsh, who has worked in railway administration for 50 years, said: ‘These pictures show what a massive infrastructure project HS2 is and how dreadful it looks at the moment. There are earthworks, concrete mixers and haul roads on a vast magnitude, which creates a huge environmental and societal impact on our densely compacted country.’

Costs have spiralled, Mr Marsh said, due to the number of changes made. ‘Every time specifications are slightly altered, insiders tell me that contractors are basically sticking another million pounds in their back pockets.

‘If all this is for 30 minutes off the journey from London to Birmingham, it would be a complete waste of money.’

About one mile east of Lichfield and 15 miles north of Birmingham Curzon Street Station, HS2 veers northward.

HS2 cuts through the countryside between Long Itchington Wood and South Cubbington Wood in Warwickshire

HS2 cuts through the countryside between Long Itchington Wood and South Cubbington Wood in Warwickshire

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt are expected to decide in the coming days whether to axe the second phase of the high-speed line. A graphic of the line and each phase is pictured

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt are expected to decide in the coming days whether to axe the second phase of the high-speed line. A graphic of the line and each phase is pictured

Construction work is being carried out beneath the West Coast Main Line and amid Staffordshire farmland.

HS2: How did we get here?

HS2 has been a controversial project since plans emerged in 2009.

Here is a timeline of key events:

January 2009

Labour establishes HS2 Ltd to examine the case for a new high-speed rail line.

December 2010

A consultation on a route for HS2 from London to Birmingham with a Y-shaped section to Manchester and Leeds is published by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government.

January 2012

Transport secretary Justine Greening announces the Government has decided to go ahead with the project, despite concerns over its cost and the environmental impact of construction.

November 2013

The Bill setting out the powers needed to build Phase 1 of HS2 between London and Birmingham is introduced to Parliament.

January 2014

The Supreme Court rejects outstanding appeals by opponents of the rail scheme.

November 2015

HS2 is given a budget of £55.7 billion.

June 2016

The National Audit Office warns HS2 is under financial strain and could be delayed by a year.

September 2016

Simon Kirby resigns as HS2 Ltd chief executive

February 2017

The Bill for Phase 1 achieves royal assent, enabling preparation work to begin.

July 2017

HS2 Ltd accepts it was a ‘serious error’ to make £1.76 million of unauthorised redundancy payments to staff.

December 2018

Sir Terry Morgan resigns as chairman of HS2 Ltd amid criticism over his role as chairman of Crossrail, which is delayed and over budget.

August 2019

The Conservatives commission a review into whether and how HS2 should continue, led by former HS2 Ltd chairman Douglas Oakervee.

September 2019

A report by HS2 Ltd chairman Allan Cook says the railway may not be completed until 2040 and could cost £88 billion.

January 2020

The Oakervee Review is widely leaked.

It finds that HS2 could cost up to £106 billion, but concludes ‘on balance’ that the project should continue.

February 2020

Prime minister Boris Johnson gives HS2 the go-ahead despite ‘exploded’ costs.

The so-called funding envelope is reset.

Phase 1 is set at £44.6 billion (at 2019 prices), with the estimated cost for the full network revised to a range of between £72 billion-£98 billion.

April 2020

HS2 Ltd gives formal approval for companies to begin construction of Phase 1.

July 2020

The delivery of HS2 is given the highest risk warning by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) for the first time.

September 2020

Boris Johnson marks the project’s formal beginning of construction at an event in Solihull, West Midlands.

January 2021

Environmental activists dig a network of tunnels in London’s Euston Square Gardens, resulting in a complex operation to remove them.

February 2021

Legislation for Phase 2a of the railway – extending the line from Birmingham to Crewe – achieves royal assent, opening the way for construction to begin.

March 2021

Anti-HS2 protests and the coronavirus pandemic have contributed to the project facing new ‘cost pressures’ of £800 million, the Government announces.

May 2021

HS2 launches its first giant tunnelling machine from a site in Buckinghamshire near the M25 motorway.

June 2021

Concerns over HS2 are a major issue in a shock by-election defeat for the Tories as the Liberal Democrats win in Chesham and Amersham, Buckinghamshire.

October 2021

HS2’s ‘cost pressures’ have risen to ‘around £1.3 billion’, the Government says.

This is partly attributed to delays completing preparatory work, approving designs and securing planning consents.

November 2021

HS2’s eastern leg between Leeds and the East Midlands is scrapped by the Government.

January 2022

The Bill for Phase 2b, extending HS2 to Manchester, is laid in Parliament.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps hails this as a ‘landmark moment’.

May 2022

Construction of the Colne Valley Viaduct begins.

It will be the UK’s longest railway bridge, stretching for 2.1 miles above a series of lakes and waterways just outside north-west London.

October 2022

Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove suggests capital investment for HS2 would be reviewed, but Chancellor Jeremy Hunt subsequently backs the project.

March 2023

The Government announces that construction of the Birmingham to Crewe leg of HS2 will be delayed by two years.

Work at Euston is paused as costs have ballooned to £4.8 billion compared with an initial budget of £2.6 billion.

This means HS2 services will start and stop at Old Oak Common, west London, until at least the 2040s.

September 2023

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak considers whether to scrap or delay the leg of HS2 from Birmingham to Manchester in response to soaring costs.

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‘This is what is considered a ‘mission critical’ spot as any disruption to the West Coast Main Line might have cost millions,’ said Phil Marsh.

‘It looks fine, but the tracks still need to be laid.’

The Chiltern Tunnel ends to the west of Chesham and north of High Wycombe.

This is where the high-speed trains are due to travel above ground for a short distance before plunging into the 0.9-mile Wendover Tunnel.

‘This end of the tunnel through the Chilterns hasn’t been cut through yet so it’s just a wall of earth,’ said Christian Wolmar, who hosts the railway podcast Calling All Stations.

‘The twin tunnel-boring machines, Florence and Cecilia, still have about two miles to go.’

This one-mile tunnel travels beneath an ancient woodland and was completed in November last year – but at the cost of felling four ancient woods in nearby South Cubbington.

Work is still being carried out to handle 500,000 tons of mudstone at an on-site slurry treatment plant.

‘The hard work has been done with the major construction complete,’ said rail administrator Phil Marsh. ‘But there are the railway communications, drainage and signalling systems still to do.’

Covering ten miles, this will be the longest of the 500 tunnels dug for the HS2 line.

The underpass begins in the south near the M25 and then head north-west between the towns of Beaconsfield and Amersham. Railway podcast host Christian Wolmar said: ‘The tunnel is only about three-quarters finished.

‘Denham is a mess – an enormous building site with a car park for 1,000 cars and a concrete factory works for mixing concrete and making tunnel supports.’

This morning, Rishi Sunak ducked over the fate of the HS2 Manchester leg as Tories warned against scrapping it days before the party’s conference in the city.

The PM refused to be drawn on signs that the government is on the cusp of downgrading the project again over spiralling costs.

Speaking on a visit to Hertfordshire this morning, Mr Sunak merely insisted he is still committed to ‘Levelling Up’ – stressing other issues such as pot holes and bus services.

Mr Sunak and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt – who has admitted that the cost of the scheme is ‘out of control’ – are expected to meet within days to discuss scrapping the northern leg of HS2. 

The decision will set the backdrop for November’s Autumn Statement. 

There are fears the upper estimate of building the initial London to Birmingham stretch of the line is set to rise by more than £8billion from the £45billion published in June 2022. 

Defence Secretary Grant Shapps said yesterday that it would be ‘crazy’ not to review HS2.

Mr Shapps, a former transport secretary, warned the Government could not write an ‘open-ended cheque’ if costs were ‘inexorably going higher and higher’.

‘I think the sequencing of what happens next is a perfectly legitimate question,’ he said.

He told the BBC: ‘We have seen the costs accelerate a lot. Of course, inflation has been part of that.

‘There are various different estimates and I think that’s one of the things that the Government wants to check, particularly on the costs now post the inflationary picture out of the war in Ukraine.

‘I have to say that it would be irresponsible to simply spend the money, carry on as if nothing had changed, if there has been a change in that fiscal picture.’

Mr Johnson has warned against ‘mutilating’ the line, while David Cameron is also said to have privately raised concerns.

Commons Health Committee chairman Steve Brine said it would look ‘odd’ to scrap the scheme in the days before Tory MPs and activists arrive in Manchester.

He also said he hoped the line would run all the way into central London rather than terminating at Old Oak Common in the capital’s western suburbs.

‘It would seem very odd for us to be in Manchester next week and can a project to Manchester,’ Mr Brine told BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour.

‘It would seem very odd not to bring this new rail line into central London and just stop it at Old Oak Common.

‘So I really hope a way can be found to do this.’

Kieran Mullan, the Tory MP for Crewe and Nantwich, urged the Government to continue with the project. He said: ‘We all agree levelling up is desperately needed. London has bounced back from the pandemic more quickly than anywhere else and the gap is only expected to get bigger.

‘HS2 might not be perfect but it is already helping close that gap in Birmingham and the North.’

London Mayor Sadiq Khan has written to the PM warning that the project could end up being a ‘colossal waste of public money’ if the northern leg is scrapped and it does not go all the way into central London.

When the railway first opens between London and Birmingham, expected between 2029 and 2033, its terminus will be at Old Oak Common in the western suburbs of the capital.

HS2 trains are not expected to run on to London Euston until around 2041. And there are now doubts the central London extension will ever go ahead. 

Andy Burnham, the Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester, said people in the North of England are treated like ‘second-class citizens’ by having to face a choice between HS2 and a cross-Pennine East to West route.

Labour has refused to confirm it would fund the line to Manchester if the Tories axe it, despite pressure from Mr Burnham. 

HS2 is a project for a high-speed rail line linking some of the country’s largest cities, intended to connect London, the Midlands and the north of England, with construction split into three phases.

Gordon Brown’s Labour government set up HS2 Ltd in 2009 and the project has been backed by successive Conservative governments since 2010.

In 2020, then premier Mr Johnson recommitted his Government to the scheme following a review.

In 2013, HS2 was estimated to cost £37.5 billion in 2009 prices but the sums have continued to spiral.

A budget of £55.7 billion for the whole of HS2 was set in 2015 but some reports suggest costs have now surpassed £100 billion, having been driven up by recent inflation rises.

Many supporters of HS2 say the main benefit will be increased capacity.

It will enable intercity trains currently operated by Avanti West Coast to be taken off the West Coast Main Line, creating more space for stopping services and freight trains.

Another improvement will be reduced journey times.

On a visit to Hertfordshire this morning, Rishi Sunak refused to be drawn on signs that the government is on the cusp of downgrading the project again over spiralling costs

On a visit to Hertfordshire this morning, Rishi Sunak refused to be drawn on signs that the government is on the cusp of downgrading the project again over spiralling costs

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt (pictured jogging today) has admitted that the cost of the HS2 scheme is 'out of control'

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt (pictured jogging today) has admitted that the cost of the HS2 scheme is ‘out of control’

The former Chancellor's intervention comes as ministers are due to make a decision on the northern leg this week

The former Chancellor’s intervention comes as ministers are due to make a decision on the northern leg this week

Ministers have already moved to pause parts of the project and even axed sections in the north. 

The eastern leg between Birmingham and Leeds was reduced to a spur line that is due to end in the East Midlands.

 It was confirmed in March that construction between Birmingham and Crewe would be delayed by two years and that services may not enter central London until the 2040s. 

Transport Secretary Mark Harper announced that work at Euston would be paused for two years as costs were forecast to almost double to £4.8 billion. 

The pause means Old Oak Common, in the capital’s western suburbs, will be the railway’s only London station when services to and from Birmingham Curzon Street begin between 2029 and 2033. 

The Prime Minister is reportedly now considering scrapping the route from Birmingham to Manchester, with a decision on the fate of the leg north from Birmingham is expected within days. 




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