Can we afford to splurge £100bn on a high speed rail link? Special report on HS2 by STEPHEN GLOVER
Can we really afford to splurge £100bn on a high speed rail link that will serve no useful purpose and may never be finished? Special report on HS2 by STEPHEN GLOVER
Few people could gaze at the bronze statue of Isambard Kingdom Brunel on London’s Victoria Embankment without being moved.
Since 1877, 18 years after his death at the age of 53, Britain’s greatest engineer has been looking sternly towards the Thames, wearing a frock coat, and carrying a pair of compasses in his hands.
Here is the creator of the Great Western Railway, which was running trains in 1838, only three years after having been approved by Parliament. The designer of Clifton Suspension Bridge. The inventor of three revolutionary ships. The builder of dockyards, bridges and tunnels.
I wonder what Brunel would say if he were told about High Speed Two (HS2), the railway conceived in 2009 during the dying days of the last Labour government, and given the go-ahead by the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition in 2012.
Almost certainly he would have been impressed by its ambitious scale — and probably shocked to learn that Britain lags far behind France, Germany, Italy and Spain, which can collectively boast many thousands of miles of high-speed track.
We can lay claim only to the 68 miles covered by HS1, which runs between the Channel coast and St Pancras International in London, and was opened in 2007. France has 1,740 miles of high-speed rail lines.
Yes, I expect Isambard Kingdom Brunel would have been excited to hear of HS2, and pleased that Britain was at long last beginning to catch up rivals which in his lifetime trailed far behind. But I’ve little doubt he would have been amazed and distraught to hear of the enormous cost overruns and mounting delays.
The first leg of HS2 between London and Birmingham, intended to be running by 2020, may not be finished until 2033, and possibly even later than that. In fact, no firm end-date for the entire scheme has been announced.
And although the original plan has been severely cut back, a venture that was initially supposed to cost £32 billion is now thought by close observers likely to set back the taxpayer more than £100 billion — and possibly much more.
This is a story of political and managerial ineptitude on a grand scale, though admittedly the scheme has been plagued by bad luck. The Government has proudly declared that HS2 is Europe’s biggest infrastructure project. It is also undoubtedly Europe’s largest white elephant.
Has the time come to pull the plug on HS2 — to stop throwing good money after bad, and admit that what was never a very good idea is fast turning into a thoroughly bad one? With a heavy heart, and well aware that there will be a lot of injured national pride, I believe it has.
Last week there were two further blows in a long saga of woe. They followed an announcement by the Government in March that work on the leg between Birmingham and Crewe is going to be put on hold because of the impact of inflation.
A leaked official briefing paper has now revealed that the bill merely for standing still on the Birmingham-Crewe line will be £366 million over two years. Workers will, for example, have to be stood down, and new ones subsequently hired. Sites will still have to be managed. In short, doing nothing costs money.
The leaked paper comes after a bombshell delivered last Monday by Hugh Merriman, the rail minister. He disclosed in a written statement that the cost of rebuilding Euston station — supposedly HS2’s central terminus in the capital — had risen from £2.2 billion to £4.8 billion, and was ‘not affordable’ at that price.
The Government had already warned a few months ago that it would prioritise the building of a new station at Old Oak Common in the far reaches of West London, which would serve as the capital’s terminus pending completion of the work at Euston.
It now appears that Euston’s makeover won’t be finished for some time — if ever. Passengers travelling to Birmingham on HS2, or arriving in London from England’s second city, will have to make do with the enchantments of Old Oak Common.
According to HS2’s immodest website, ‘Old Oak Common is a new super-hub set to be the best-connected and largest new railway station ever built in the UK. The station will have 14 platforms, a mix of six high-speed and eight conventional service platforms.’
Fine, but it’s not built yet, and even when it is, you’ll have to get on an Underground train to reach Central London. I don’t want be a party pooper, but that sounds to me very far from ideal.
The journey time on HS2 between Euston and Birmingham, travelling at speeds of up to 250 mph, would have taken 52 minutes, rather than the existing one hour 21 minutes, according to the Department for Transport.
Now we’ll have to factor in the time it takes to travel between Old Oak Common and Central London. It hardly seems worth it. In fact, I’d far rather travel from Euston to Birmingham under the present arrangements than slog over to Old Oak Common, being jostled on the Tube, for a marginally faster journey.
Mothballing Euston as London’s central terminus is only the latest of many retrenchments. The extension of HS2 from Birmingham to Manchester is now in doubt following the suspension of work on the Birmingham-Crewe section. The latest estimate for completion — if that ever happens — has been pushed back from 2033 to between 2035 and 2041.
Meanwhile, the planned HS2 line from East Midlands Parkway to Leeds was scrapped by the Government in November 2021. A link from East Midlands to Birmingham is still planned, though even that may not materialise.
Also jettisoned in 2021 was HS3 — the high-speed line intended to link Leeds to Manchester. The famously slow and ponderous railway that connects the two cities will now supposedly be upgraded.
All that seems assured about HS2 is the new line from Old Oak Common to Birmingham. This could be the only surviving aspect of the original plan, which was meant to shorten journey times to northern cities and eventually Scotland, as well as increase capacity over the entire rail network. Both aspirations have more or less evaporated.
Who is to blame for the soaring bills, repeated postponements and ceaseless curtailment of the project? The senior management of HS2 obviously has much to answer for, and several of them have been made to walk the plank over the years.
There has been an absence of a visionary, driving force behind the scheme, such as the Channel Tunnel enjoyed in the shape of Sir Alastair Morton. That was one ambitious infrastructure project that did get done — with the help of the French — though the final cost was twice what had been envisaged.
Surely, though, it is the politicians who should take the ultimate blame for the many failures. They came up with a grand idea. HS2 would help boost the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ and assist ‘levelling up’.
As Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne was the evangeliser-in-chief, declaring in 2013 that he was ‘passionate’ about the scheme. After leaving office he has continued to extol HS2, and indeed HS3.
David Cameron was an equally enthusiastic proselytiser. In 2013, the then prime minister stated that HS2 was ‘essential’ if the UK was to be a ‘winner in the global race’.
As a lover of grands projets such as a new airport in the Kent marshes and a bridge linking Scotland to Northern Ireland, Boris Johnson was a natural supporter of high-speed rail.
In 2019, he commissioned a review led by a former chairman of HS2, who was wildly in favour of the enterprise and unsurprisingly endorsed it. However, in 2021 Mr Johnson agreed that the link to Leeds, as well as HS3, should be scrapped.
Ministers are busy people, and have many fish to fry. They make enthusiastic noises about high-speed rail — and then move on to something else. They don’t tend to keep a grip on escalating costs.
In two respects, the Government has been unfortunate, or at any rate has been ambushed by factors it couldn’t easily have foreseen. Inflation has blown a further hole in the finances of HS2.
According to Noble Francis, economics director at the Construction Products Association, soaring inflation has led to materials being 43.1 per cent more expensive than they were in 2020, and these costs are certain to rise further.
An even more fundamental blow to the project has been the lower numbers of train passengers since the pandemic. According to the Office of Rail and Road, 1.4 million rail passenger journeys were made in Britain in 2022. This is 83 per cent of the 1.7 billion journeys made three years previously, before Covid struck.
Whether we like it or not, in the aftermath of the pandemic many people are working from home for one, two or more days a week, and are likely to go on doing so since many employers seem remarkably relaxed about it.
This means that, unless we revert entirely to our old ways, there will be less pressure on the overall capacity of the rail network for the foreseeable future. Even more to the point, fewer people will be jumping on HS2 than was envisaged a few years ago.
Zoom and other video conferencing services have served further to undermine the already shaky economic case for HS2. It was a scheme dreamt up in another age — never very rigorously examined, and now even more irrelevant as a result of the pandemic.
So we are left with the bare bones of what was a much grander project. What we are likely to have is reckoned to be the most expensive high-speed rail line ever built, perhaps ten times more costly per mile than the French equivalent.
This is mostly because HS2 is being driven through some of the most densely populated, and mostly zealously protected, parts of England. Tunnels galore are being built, not least to shield sensitive Tory voters from noise. Some 64 miles of the track between London and Birmingham is expected to be in tunnels.
The environmental damage is of course immense. Dozens of ancient woodlands, and hundreds of houses and businesses, are being erased to make way for a railway which few people other than a dwindling band of zealous politicians want, and not enough passengers will use.
As we all know, taxes in Britain are higher than they have ever been in peace-time. The country is in the economic doldrums and many are struggling to pay their bills.
Last week brought the shocking news that the nation’s debt has exceeded 100 per cent of our GDP for the first time for over 60 years, while the cost of paying interest on it is soaring. With our public finances in such a mess, we simply cannot afford a vanity project that could cost well over £100 billion.
This is a truth that appears at long last to be dawning on the Government. It emerged a few days ago that one third of a £5.5 billion contingency reserve has already been gobbled up by the phase one London-to-Birmingham link a full ten years before it is likely to be completed.
What is to be done? Around £20 billion has already been spent on phase one, which is getting on for half the expected cost of this section of HS2. Tempting though it is to pull the plug immediately, that would amount to a scandalous waste of public money.
But it is surely unimaginable that the extensions to Crewe and then to Manchester can ever built. It would take too long, cost far too much, and deliver only meagre benefits. Better spend some of the money on improving the North of England’s appalling railways.
We will be left with a London to Birmingham high-speed line that will serve no very useful purpose. But it will stand as a monument to the vanity of politicians who were never able to justify HS2, took their eye off the ball, and have now been overtaken by events.
The great Isambard Kingdom Brunel might have cried in disbelief. It would be easy enough for us to weep at what is unquestionably a national humiliation. But I don’t believe this means we can never succeed with a great project again.
HS2 was just the wrong one. It was misconceived, and has now become a discreditable fiasco. Put this white elephant out of its misery before it does us any more harm.