Boris Johnson has insisted HS2 will be “crucial for our country” as he marked the project’s formal beginning of construction.
The Prime Minister acknowledged that more people are working from home due to the coronavirus pandemic but claimed transport networks will be critical for many years.
Speaking at a “shovels in the ground” event in Solihull, West Midlands, Mr Johnson said: “I think loads of people have had the benefit of working from home.
“It’s been magnificent and it’s definitely enhanced people’s quality of life in many, many ways and I congratulate people on the hard work they’ve put in from home.
“But I’ve got absolutely no doubt that mass transit transport infrastructure is going to be crucial for our country, not just now, but in the decades ahead.
“This incredible project is going to be delivering 22,000 jobs now, but tens of thousands more high-skilled jobs in the decades ahead, linking Birmingham, eight miles away there, to London, just 38 minutes behind me when HS2 is built.”
He added: “Transport connectivity is at the heart of the build back better, build back faster and build back greener recovery.”
Latest Department for Transport figures show demand for rail travel is at 31% of pre-pandemic levels.
All revenue and cost risks from rail franchises were transferred to the UK, Scottish and Welsh governments in March to ensure services continued despite the collapse in demand caused by the coronavirus lockdown.
This has cost taxpayers at least £3.5 billion.
The Government-commissioned Oakervee Review into HS2 warned last year that the final bill for the railway scheme could reach £106 billion at 2019 prices.
Despite it running tens of billions of pounds over budget and several years behind schedule, the PM gave HS2 the green light in February.
The project was given a revised budget and schedule as part of his decision.
Joe Rukin, of campaign group Stop HS2, claimed the case for building the railway “has gone from questionable to completely non-existent”.
He said: “The passenger forecasts invented to justify this gargantuan white elephant started off as being grossly inflated.
“This idea that HS2 is needed because tens of thousands of people will demand to commute even greater distances for work in the future is just laughable.”
Work will begin on Phase One between London and the West Midlands with the biggest engineering challenges – such as the stations and tunnels – followed by the main viaducts and bridges.
Most activity this year will be focused on HS2’s city centre stations and major construction compounds, including at Old Oak Common, west London, and Calvert in Buckinghamshire.
HS2 Ltd chief executive Mark Thurston said: “We are already seeing the benefits that building HS2 is bringing to the UK economy in the short-term, but it’s important to emphasise how transformative the railway will be for our country when operational.”