As diggers moved into Birmingham to start preparation work for HS2, senior figures within the Conservative Party have been at odds over whether the high-speed rail network should go ahead.
Splits have begun to widen within the cabinet on the feasibility and cost impact of the £56bn project which had the first phase between London and Birmingham formally approved by parliament 18 months ago.
It comes as the transport secretary Chris Grayling headed north over the weekend to meet with construction workers at the Old Curzon Street station site in Birmingham where work began on building the HS2 terminal.
A defiant Grayling said the start of work was an “important moment in the history of rail travel” within the UK and seeing the start of work on the first railway to be built north of London for over 100 years was incredible for the future of the country.
“HS2 will not only deliver the step change in rail travel that this country needs, it will also ensure that Britain is at the forefront of railway construction once again,” he added. “Supporting thousands of jobs and businesses and creating a first-class skills base that we can export around the world.”
His comments come just a few days after the former foreign secretary Boris Johnson suggested the line should be halted in favour of a focus on poor northern transport links which continue to frustrate commuters.
In an interview with the Sunday Times, Johnson, said: “There are projects we should have on transport in the north of the country that ought to take precedence over HS2,” Johnson said. “It’s crazy how long it takes to get east-west across the country."
While its understood that Commons leader Andrea Leadsom in a cabinet meeting last week was hesitant to support the project and wants ministers to rethink plans with escalating costs at the heart of issues.
However business secretary Greg Clarke has reacted strongly to the negativity by saying ending the HS2 quest would be the “completely wrong approach”. Speaking at a fringe event at the Conservative Party conference, he said: “One of the upsetting criticisms, I think, of successive governments in the UK is that we haven't got on and invested in supporting infrastructure for the economy. We've made a decision to invest in HS2 - I think it's important that we follow through with that."
While West Midlands mayor Andy Street has also spoke out about the benefits the proposed £56bn scheme can bring. Commenting on the start of work, Street said: "The start of work on HS2 in Birmingham is an important milestone. The project is already having a huge impact on our region in terms of jobs and investment. It is vital we deliver this scheme on time and help rebalance the UK economy.”