Transport chiefs believe the government could decide to split the planned HS2 rail network into three separate projects in a bid to save costs and win over opponents.
Such a move would reduce the headline figure of the £106 billion infrastructure project and potentially make it more acceptable to its critics.
The suggestion came as Boris Johnson was reportedly set to give the green light to the high speed railway line despite the opposition of his most senior aide Dominic Cummings and a growing Tory backlash.
The Prime Minister was due to meet with Chancellor Sajid Javid and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps today to discuss the future of the network.
The meeting followed the revelation that Mr Javid is ready to throw his weight behind the massive initiative.
The signs now suggest HS2 will be allowed to proceed despite the prospect of a Conservative rebellion over the project’s spiralling costs and questions about the benefits it will deliver.
If Mr Johnson does go ahead with HS2 it will put him at odds with Mr Cummings who previously described it as a ‘disaster zone’.
Boris Johnson, pictured leaving Downing Street yesterday, is reportedly set to back HS2
Dominic Cummings, pictured arriving in Downing Street today, is opposed to HS2 and has previously labelled the project a ‘disaster zone’
An official government review suggested HS2 could end up costing £106 billion having been costed at £56 billion in 2015
An ally of the PM told The Times: ‘We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Yes, there are significant issues with the cost but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t go ahead.’
It is thought the PM’s backing for the project would come with the caveat that it must make significant cost savings.
The Financial Times reported that industry figures believe ministers are looking at the possibility of breaking HS2 up into three separate projects.
The first phase from London to Birmingham would still be known as HS2 but the route from Birmingham to Leeds and Manchester would be rebranded as northern regeneration while HS2-related works at Euston station would also be split off as a separate initiative.
Many in the government believe HS2 must go ahead in order to deliver on the PM’s promise to ‘level up’ the UK and spread prosperity away from London.
In 2015 it was costed at £56 billion but a leaked review commissioned by the government examining the viability and value for money of the project recently revealed it could end up costing as much as £106 billion.
Today’s meeting between Mr Johnson, Mr Javid and Mr Shapps inevitably sparked speculation that HS2 will be granted permission to proceed, especially after Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said at the weekend it was his gut feeling it would go ahead.
It is understood that having reviewed costs and alternatives to HS2 the Chancellor will now ‘broadly back’ the high-speed line.
Mr Shapps has insisted that no decision on the controversial infrastructure project – the biggest in Europe – will be announced this week.
And Downing Street said yesterday that there would be ‘no decision this week’.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said this morning: ‘A decision on HS2 is an important decision for the country and it will be taken based on the facts and I am not going preempt that decision.’
However, it is thought today’s meeting could end with the trio of senior ministers backing HS2 in principle.
Mr Johnson told the Commons yesterday that a decision on the project would be made ‘very shortly’.
He said: ‘I just want to reassure all of my honourable friends and everybody, whatever persuasion they may be about HS2 across this Chamber, that there will be an announcement and a decision very shortly.’
Approximately £8 billion has already been spent on HS2 but there is growing disquiet among some Tory MPs who are adamant it is a waste of money.
The HS2 route would initially link London and Birmingham with the second phase of the project then heading north to Manchester and Leeds
HS2 would allow trains to travel at speeds of up to 250mph. That would mean much faster journeys between key UK cities. The graphic shows times for HS2 passengers (in red) verses the current times (in blue)
They have urged the government to scrap the project and spend the cash on smaller infrastructure improvements instead, like better bus services and pothole repairs.
Greg Smith, the newly elected Conservative MP for Buckingham, told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning that he would vote against HS2.
He said: ‘I was very clear in the general election campaign that I am opposed to HS2. It is absolutely wrong for my constituency and I believe it to be wrong for the country as well.’
Whitehall’s spending watchdog said this month that HS2 is over budget and behind schedule because its complexity and risks were under-estimated.
The National Audit Office (NAO) warned that it is impossible to ‘estimate with certainty what the final cost could be’.
Phase One between London and Birmingham was due to open in 2026, but full services are now forecast to start between 2031 and 2036.
Business chiefs in the north of England have argued that pushing forward with HS2 is key to boosting transport links across the region and providing increased capacity on the overcrowded rail network.