HS2 contractor: 'We won't stop digging until we reach Euston'

HS2 contractors say they plan to press ahead with digging tunnels to Euston, despite the Government having effectively sent the high-speed link to central London crashing into the buffers.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak last month ordered the cost of the Euston leg to be reduced by £6.5bn – meaning it will only be built if it can be part-financed with private investment.

The order to cut costs – alongside the axing of the Birmingham to Manchester section – was despite years of preparatory works having turned Euston into a vast construction site.

But during a HS2 media event on Wednesday, designed to showcase the vast amount of work continuing on site at Old Oak Common station in north-west London, tunnelling contractor Skanska Costain made clear its intention to start digging towards Euston in 2026.

James Richardson, managing director of the Skanska Costain STRABAG joint venture, told the Standard: “The tunnel that goes from [Old Oak Common] to Euston will commence in 2026. That will take around two years to complete. We are expecting that to be concluded in 2028.”

This could mean that the tunnels will be ready – but may not be used for another decade unless the row over who funds the Euston HS2 station is resolved.

Mr Richardson, asked whether he was defying Government orders, said: “What the Prime Minister said was that we are committed to go to Euston but we need to find a funding mechanism that enables some of that funding to be supported by the private sector. I think that is a reasonable challenge with regard to infrastructure.

“From our point of view as the contractors delivering these tunnels, we continue exactly as we are.”

The two tunnel boring machines that will dig the Euston tunnels are due to be lowered into the ground at Old Oak Common next year.

Experts say they cannot be left “in situ” for years but, like a car left in a garage over winter, need to be started regularly to prevent them breaking.

“We are not expecting to mothball the TBMs [tunnel boring machines],” Mr Richardson said. “We are expecting to assemble them over 2025 and launch in 2026.”

The first section of HS2, between Birmingham and Old Oak Common, is due to open between 2029-33. Passengers will have to change onto Elizabeth line trains to reach central London.

Old Oak Common station will be the biggest new-built station in the UK (HS2)
Old Oak Common station will be the biggest new-built station in the UK (HS2)

Old Oak Common will have six 400m-long platforms below ground – for the HS2 trains – and eight conventional 250m platforms above ground, for Elizabeth line and Great Western Railway trains.

Construction is about 30 per cent complete, including about half of the 900m-long subterranean concrete “box” that will house the HS2 platforms. More than £3bn of contracts have been awarded to London-based firms to help build HS2.

An “immense roof” the size of three football pitches, and covered in solar panels to power the station with renewable energy, will cover the tracks. About 250,000 passengers a day are expected to use the station, which will be the biggest newly-built station in the UK.

Huw Edwards, project client director at HS2, said it had been a “difficult time” since the Prime Minister’s announcement.

Asked if the line would ever reach Euston, Mr Edwards said: “We are absolutely committed to taking HS2 to Euston at the end of the day. This [Old Oak Common] is purely a temporary terminus.

“This will be the ninth railway I will be part of opening by the time we finish. Every single one of those in my 33 year career has opened in incremental parts, whether it was the Docklands Light Railway, the Jubilee line extension, HS1, Crossrail or even London Overground - building [in] blocks, which create a bigger railway. HS2 is no different.”

It is thought that advances in technology will remove the need for ticket barriers at Old Oak Common. Mr Edwards said: “We are looking far more for the airport terminal-style feel than we are a pure historic railway station—type feel.

“Eight years away, no-one is really clear what technology will be available. What we have is a range of options we are working on.”

Mr Edwards said the first stage of HS2, linking Birmingham and Old Oak Common, was “fully underway”, with 1,900 people working at the site in north-west London.

Asked if he could give a more precise opening date for HS2’s first section, he said the Elizabeth line – which opened more than three years late - was a good example of why not to set a specific date.

He added: “What is important to remember is that we are still working on the biggest construction scheme in western Europe.”