Chancellor George Osborne has urged Chinese investors to bid for contracts to build HS2, as he opened the bidding process for the high-speed rail line.
Speaking in China, he urged firms to bid for seven contracts worth £11.8bn in total – covering the first phase of HS2, from London and Birmingham.
Mr Osborne also invited bids for £24bn of investment in northern England.
Critics say opening HS2 bidding before Parliament has approved the scheme “smacks of a mercenary approach”.
It comes as shadow transport secretary Lilian Greenwood told the BBC Labour would nationalise the railway system, including HS2.
‘A golden era’
Mr Osborne, who is on a trip to boost trade links between the UK and China, announced the start of the procurement process for bridges, tunnels and earthworks.
Speaking in Chengdu, he said: “Launching HS2 is key to supporting long-term economic growth across the north and Midlands.
“That’s why I’m here in China today opening the bidding process for construction contracts worth £11.8bn, which will propel HS2 forward.
“We are truly entering a golden era of co-operation between our two countries, and it’s crucial that businesses and communities from across the UK feel the full benefit of forging closer economic links with China.”
The first phase of the proposed high-speed rail link would be constructed between London and Birmingham, with proposed extensions to Manchester and Leeds.
What is HS2?
The initial plan is for a new railway line between London and the West Midlands carrying 400m-long (1,300ft) trains with up to 1,100 seats per train.
They would operate at speeds of up to 250mph (400km/h) – faster than any current operating speed in Europe – and would travel up to 14 times per hour in each direction.
This would be followed by a V-shaped second phase taking services from Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds. Intermediate stations in the East Midlands and South Yorkshire are also planned.
Read more: High-speed rail’s long journey
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin described the start of the civil engineering procurement process as “a major step towards construction on HS2 getting under way in two years’ time and a massive opportunity to help rebalance our economy long before the trains start running in 2026”.
But Richard Houghton, from campaign group HS2 Action Alliance, said: “Putting contracts out to tender prior to the legislative process being complete smacks of a mercenary approach to HS2.
“Surely the honest and transparent approach would be to only put out tenders after the hybrid bill has been passed and the funds are available.”
Cheryl Gillan, Conservative MP for Chesham and Amersham, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that opening the bidding process for the project was “premature”.
Campaigners are fighting the plans on grounds of cost and the damage they say the network will do to picturesque countryside it goes through.
Mr Osborne also invited Chinese investors to become involved in infrastructure schemes in the north of England, including a proposed Science Centraldevelopment in Newcastle and the Atlantic Gateway development between Liverpool and Manchester.
Communities Secretary Greg Clark said: “Today’s pitch book sets out in black and white to Chinese investors over £24bn worth of exciting investment opportunities, which together will deliver key infrastructure projects, help develop a highly skilled workforce and create thousands of jobs.”
Other announcements included:
- The potential doubling of enterprise zones in the north of England
- Efforts to reinvigorate link partnerships between northern and Chinese cities
- A new Lancaster University service to bring together UK and Chinese universities, researchers and businesses
Mr Osborne’s China trip comes ahead of a state visit to the UK by Chinese President Xi Jinping next month – the first by a Chinese leader for a decade.