The Government has given formal approval for the HS2 project to begin the construction phase.
It has issued a notice to proceed to the companies that will build phase one of the high-speed railway.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave the green light for HS2 in February despite it running tens of billions of pounds over budget and several years behind schedule.
The Government-commissioned Oakervee Review warned that the final bill could reach £106 billion at 2019 prices.
HS2 Minister Andrew Stephenson said: “While the Government’s top priority is rightly to combat the spread of coronavirus, protect the NHS and save lives, we cannot delay work on our long-term plan to level up the country.
“HS2 will be the spine of the country’s transport network, boosting capacity and connectivity while also re-balancing opportunity fairly across our towns and cities.
“Following the decision earlier this year to proceed with the project, this next step provides thousands of construction workers and businesses across the country with certainty at a time when they need it, and means that work can truly begin on delivering this transformational project.”
Notice to proceed has been given to the four joint ventures previously awarded main works civil contracts.
That means the firms can transition from carrying out scheme design and preparatory work to detailed design and construction.
HS2 Ltd chief executive Mark Thurston said: “In these difficult times, today’s announcement represents both an immediate boost to the construction industry – and the many millions of UK jobs that the industry supports – and an important investment in Britain’s future: levelling up the country, improving our transport network and changing the way we travel to help bring down carbon emissions and improve air quality for the next generation.
“HS2 has been over 10 years in development and design. While the country’s focus is rightly on defeating Covid-19, the issuing of notice to proceed today ensures that our contractors and their supply chains have the confidence that they can commit to building HS2, generating thousands of skilled jobs across the country as we recover from the pandemic.”
Preparatory work at some HS2 sites remains paused following a review of what operations can be carried out in accordance with coronavirus guidance.
But HS2 Ltd said the four joint ventures will “start work immediately” on detailed designs, site preparation work and issuing sub-contracts.
The companies involved are applying conditions such as ensuring a minimum clearance between all personnel of two metres, having facilities for regular hand washing and single occupancy of all vehicles unless agreed in advance.
The Department for Transport (DfT) said the firms “will be able to commence work in line with Public Health England’s guidance around construction work continuing during the coronavirus outbreak”.
The joint ventures, originally awarded contracts by HS2 Ltd in July 2017, are:
– SCS Railways (Skanska Construction UK, Costain and Strabag)
– Align joint venture (Bouygues Travaux Publics, Sir Robert McAlpine and VolkerFitzpatrick)
– EKFB joint venture (Eiffage Genie Civil SA, Kier Infrastructure and Overseas, Ferrovial Agroman and BAM Nuttall)
– BBV joint venture (Balfour Beatty Group, Vinci Construction Grands Projets, Vinci Construction UK and Vinci Construction Terrassement)
The contracts have a total value of £12 billion, which covers the design and construction of bridges, tunnels, embankments and viaducts for phase one of HS2, which will run from London Euston to Birmingham.
The line was due to open in 2026, but it could be 10 years later before it opens in full.
Passenger services between Old Oak Common in west London and Birmingham Curzon Street are due to begin between 2029 and 2033, with trains able to start and end journeys at London Euston between 2031 and 2036.
The DfT and HS2 Ltd’s estimate of the cost of phase one ranges from £35 billion to £45 billion.