Rishi Sunak’s decision to scrap the second stage of HS2 from Birmingham to Manchester is all but set in stone after the cost of the project ballooned.
A budget of £55.7 billion for the whole of HS2 was set in 2015 but some reports suggest costs have now surpassed £100 billion, or over £262 million per mile, according to Financial Times estimates.
Scaling it back, therefore, might sound like a sensible idea on the face of it in an age where sensible ideas have been few and far between.
However, we also think he and the Tory Party are not being completely straight with people about why costs have increased and we think a decision to cancel would be madness. A small delay to respect parts might be okay, but to end up with a line just from Birmingham to Old Oak Common would be incompetence of an epochal nature.
In particular, we think the following points have not been adequately addressed in public:
Nimbyism writ large
Thanks to the nimby lobbying of Tory MPs in the Cotswolds and elsewhere on the route between London and Birmingham, the first leg of HS2 spends most of its time in cuttings and going through tunnels. So much so that it is estimated that out of a 48-minute journey, passengers will only have 7 minutes with a view.
Not only is this a shame for passengers but it is a very major part of the cost overrun – cuttings and, in particular, tunnels are very expensive.
And they are not necessary. Studies of the effects of HS1 on villages in Kent have shown that, as was ever thus with railways, that people are terrified of the effect when they are being built but they soon become an unnoticed part of the landscape once operational. All of the nonsense that HS2 would destroy the Cotswolds was just that – utter nonsense that we have paid billions for because a bunch of Tory backbenchers don’t know their history.
As a final aside on this point, the M40 has a great big cutting through the Cotswolds and last time I looked it was still a nice place to live. And my father-in-law’s farm in Oxfordshire has both the M40 and two railway lines going through it (one with a viaduct). The only one that bothers them is the motorway….
Speed, glorious speed
The standard for high-speed rail in Europe is 180 mph. It works and it is fast enough. But could we do the same? Oh no, the Tories had to go all “we’re better than the foreigners” about it and build a line that was intended to launch with trains at 240mph and would be “future-proofed” to be able to cope with higher speeds than that.
Not only was the main purpose capacity (see below) but the extra speed has caused disproportionate expense. Instead of taking off-the-shelf technical and engineering products and solutions we have had to invent new ones. At vast expense.
And with no obvious purpose – geographically even Manchester is really in the Southern part of the island of Great Britain. The distances involved are not great: London to Birmingham (88 miles) and Birmingham to Manchester (70 miles), barely enough time for the train to reach top speed before decelerating. They are nothing compared to, for example, Paris to Nice at over 500 miles.
What’s done is done with the first leg, but for the second leg pause, ditch the embarrassing Brexity boosterism about having a faster train than the French and respec to 180mph.
Capacity is the real reason
A standard open return to Manchester on the West Coast Mainline costs nearly £400. This is deliberate pricing to ration demand in the face of a lack of capacity. There may be no obvious alternative than to do so at the moment, but it is also clear and inarguable as a matter of economics that in doing so economic growth is being stifled.
This was the correct driver behind the line. But it only works if you extend to Manchester and, ideally, resurrect the leg to Leeds.
Because London to Birmingham is the only major inter-city route in the UK with two existing independent main lines: the WCML to Euston and the Chiltern Railways route to Marylebone. So ending the line at Birmingham will mean that London to Birmingham will have three mainline connections and everywhere else will have one or none. Well done fella whoever thinks that makes sense.
A fast link between Leeds and Manchester is urgently needed, but it is not an alternative to HS2 but rather uses part of the HS2 route. And will be more effective if it connects through to London. So even if you switched to just doing Leeds – Manchester you will probably end up having to build 20% of so the northern leg of HS2.
In any other environment, someone spending £100 or even £200 billion would want to keep a close eye on things. Yet the Tory government has been a classic “absentee landlord” (to borrow a phrase used in private equity to describe not being on top of an investment. It is not meant as a compliment).
At the very least there should be a ministerial role to act as a full-time chairman (not CEO) of the HS2 delivery company and spend every day being on top of the executive team making sure that shareholder (i.e. taxpayer) value is being delivered.
Anyone would think that the Tories just wanted to make sure they did not take the blame!
Even this current husk of a Tory party – it’s what happens when you expel everyone with a brain – has some good people with proper managerial experience (Damian Hinds perhaps?) who could fulfil this role until it needs to be handed over to Labour after the next election.
Value for Money
Measuring value for money for these large projects is important but hard and very subjective. As with many less complex models, it’s all in the assumptions. A bigger picture point would be that large infrastructure projects generally go over budget, and are late and controversial. Get over it. The Clifton Suspension Bridge was unfinished, having no actual “bridge bit, for decades when the contractor went bust and statutory permission expired. Crossrail 2000 missed its eponymous target opening date, but 23 years later and it transformed travel across London.
We have neglected our railways for decades. We need to build HS2 and HS3. We need to do so more intelligently and with a tighter approach to cost and for the love of God someone needs to actually take some responsibility and get them both done.