HS2 is such a failure even people of the North don’t want it

Call a halt Mr Sunak the benefits of this costly high-speed rail project are becoming harder to justify

Construction for HS2 at Curzon Street Station in Birmingham. But will the entire project be completed? Reuters
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Let us get one thing clear. The North of England never asked for HS2, the mega-engineering project that is currently plaguing the British government's efforts to get its finances in order.

As a Northerner myself I never heard anyone call for a high-speed rail link with London. Indeed, in my lifetime, the journey times had improved so much — down to only two hours 10 minutes to Manchester — that they earned praise. No one said they had to be shorter still.

The problem was not the up and down, to and from the capital, but across, from Liverpool to Manchester to Leeds, Sheffield, Hull. That was bad. Added to that, only one cross-country motorway, meant getting around the North as opposed to going to and from London was often nightmarish, even though the distances were short.

Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, said as much recently when he complained about the “chopping and changing” to HS2. Added Burnham: “But we argue it’s not the right solution for Manchester anyway. I think we should have north-south and east-west links but if you pinned me to a wall, I would prioritise cross-northern travel.”

If the “King of the North”, as Burnham is known, thinks that, you have to ask: how did we get to this point, of committing £72 billion ($87.92 billion) to an infrastructure project, Britain’s biggest ever, when even those who ought to be its most strident supporters can’t see the need?

London, in the shape of Westminster, thought it knew best. They determined that the main rail services to Birmingham and the North-West, to Manchester and Liverpool, were going to be full to bursting as Britain moved away from the car. What was required was more frequent, quicker and longer trains. That last need explains part of the reason why HS2 costs so much — new stations and platforms will have to be built as the present ones cannot cope with additional carriages.

There was an element of national pride at play as well. Unlike other European countries — France, Germany, Spain — Britain is not blessed with high-speed trains. Currently, there is one, to the Channel Tunnel. Not having them, it was felt, made the country appear backward. In the race to attract inward investment, particularly for the post-industrial Midlands and North, precisely the areas served by the mooted HS2, this was thought to matter.

Shifting priorities

Britain is not good at delivering major projects on time, to budget. There is something in the national psyche that seems to prevent this. The exact route for HS2 kept shifting, adding to the bill every time. Unlike its European neighbours, Britain is overcrowded, it doesn’t have swathes of empty countryside to play with. Farmland is expensive, as is buying out the properties that will be knocked down to accommodate the new railway.

Environmental campaigners, local Nimbys and their MPs rose up along the planned track, with the result that greater mileage than was intended must now be buried underground in incredibly costly tunnels.

The contracts were designed to apportion risk (on elements like embankments and railway foundations) to the contractor, away from the government. This added to the price, with contractors arguing successfully they were on the hook.

Successive administrations have struggled with Euston Station, the main London rail hub and the intended start of the line. Euston is a concrete eyesore, everyone is agreed. But what should replace it again keeps altering. It also happens to be smack-bang in the middle of just about the most expensive city in the world in which to build.

These factors go towards explaining the ever-rising total. Construction work has started on the first phase of the line, linking London and Birmingham. Already, the opening date has receded, from 2026 to 2029 to 2033. Likewise, the second stage, to Manchester and a shortened eastern leg, was due to launch in 2033 and is now scheduled for between 2035 and 2041.

Britain’s greatest infrastructure mistake in half a century
Andrew Gilligan, former transport tsar

Meanwhile, Whitehall reviews are examining whether drastic savings can be made, if sections should be scrapped completely or delayed. Consider what that means. Here is a railway that we’ve been assured is vital to the country’s competitiveness going forward. Yet entire parts could be canned or postponed. It’s supposed to be an urgently required boost but where is the urgency if it’s ended or stalled? That suggests it’s not really needed at all.

London to Birmingham will go ahead. But after that, who knows? Options under consideration include ditching the 40-mile line from Birmingham to East Midlands Parkway, near Nottingham. Another is dropping the section north of Crewe and running trains into the centre of Manchester on existing tracks. Another is delaying the opening of the section from Old Oak Common, west London, to Euston.

Ideally, if ministers could choose they would say not to have it all. But seeing as Birmingham is under way and the symbolism of not having anything called HS2 being too humiliating politically to bear, the first phase stays. After that, if they could they would surely drop the lot. The saving, for a national purse that is desperate for every penny at the moment, would be colossal. Andrew Gilligan, the former Downing Street transport special adviser, has said cancelling it would save £3 billion a year by 2027-2028 and £44 billion or higher in total.

Broken promises

The downside would be explaining the decision to the North, the same region that swung behind the Tories at the last election and delivered them victory. If they could be persuaded that at least some of that cash would go on boosting cross-country services, then they might be placated.

Rishi Sunak, whose constituency is in the North, in rural Yorkshire, is thought not to be a fan. He’s struggled to see the benefit versus cost.

Opportunities to pull back or end the scheme, however, have come and gone, not least in the Boris Johnson period in Downing Street. Gilligan, who advised Johnson, is opposed to HS2, calling it “Britain’s greatest infrastructure mistake in half a century”.

While Johnson did terminate plans for a 90-mile stretch from East Midlands Parkway to Leeds (effectively the right arm of the original concept representing the letter Y, with Birmingham in the middle and the left going to Manchester) that was his limit. Johnson, who takes great delight in building things, could not steel himself to go further.

It’s not a white elephant. When it’s completed, the train line will be used. Journey times will be reduced, although only by a matter of minutes; there will be more trains, they will carry more carriages and therefore more seats, and they will be sleek and gleaming and modern.

But it’s a step too far. Sunak should call a halt. And he can be reassured of at least one aspect: whatever is said, the North didn’t want it in the first place.

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Published: February 14, 2023, 1:55 PM