Daily Mail

Another fiasco for the biggest and costliest white elephant in our history

- By Ross Clark

CAN the story of HS2 get any more wretched? This vast and bloated project has been bedevilled by years of soaring costs and shrinking ambition.

Yesterday’s announceme­nt of another two years of delays – in the section running from Birmingham to Crewe – will infuriate northern city mayors. They will be wondering whether the economic windfall that the track promised will ever materialis­e.

Frankly, Rishi Sunak should be scrapping the project north of Birmingham. Should he drop the whole thing altogether? No – that would be an even more scandalous waste of public money. Work is so advanced on the first phase, with £18.3billion spent and a further £10.3billion already contracted, that it would be pointless to stop the bulldozers now.

But already HS2 is a shadow of its original intentions. The eastern leg from Birmingham to Leeds has been scrapped. The link that would have enabled high-speed trains to travel from Manchester on to Scotland has also been dropped, as have the links needed to continue the line through to Heathrow and the Channel Tunnel.

The Government has even toyed with the idea – rejected for the moment – of terminatin­g the line near Wormwood Scrubs prison in north-west London and forcing passengers to take suburban trains from there into the centre of the capital. And yesterday’s announceme­nt by Transport Secretary Mark Harper suggests that there will be more cost-cutting to come. When the Labour government announced HS2 in 2010, Britain was promised a futuristic Vshaped network branching from London to Manchester and Leeds, for a price of £30billion. THE first phase, we were told, would be open by 2026. It now looks, if anything appears at all in our lifetimes, that HS2 will be a truncated stump running from the suburbs of London to somewhere outside Birmingham.

For this modest project, we will have to wait until the 2030s and, when inflation is taken into account, it is bound to cost well over the £44.6billion budget.

HS2 was misconceiv­ed from the start. What Britain’s railways needed was relatively minor improvemen­ts to relieve bottleneck­s on inter-city lines, combined with greater investment in tram and metro systems in and around regional cities. That is where the demand for better public transport is greatest: in places that do not enjoy the dense rail and bus networks that London does.

Instead, HS2 is a vanity project that ignores Britain’s compact geography and is designed around the desire of Government ministers to boast of having the fastest inter-city rail service in the world.

When your major cities are mostly within a couple of hours’ train journey of each other already, it is ridiculous to spend tens of billions shaving a few minutes off journey times.

What matters far more is the ease of catching trains: making sure there is good transport to and from railway stations, and making tickets easier and cheaper to buy. Yet HS2 threatens yet more hyper-inflation in rail fares as the Government attempts to claw back the public

billions invested in the project. The business case for HS2 always was flimsy. It was based on the idea that time spent on a train is wasted time because people can’t work on the move – a fallacy easily exposed simply by observing a carriage-load of passengers on their laptops.

MOREOVER, in threatenin­g to making HS2 trains reservatio­nthe Government has ensured that passengers will have to arrive early to catch the train on which they are booked. That alone could cancel out any benefit from a slightly faster journey.

And post-Covid, the case for HS2 is weaker still. Workers are commuting less and travelling to fewer face-to-face business meetings. Nor does it fulfil the ambition of ‘levelling up’ the country, given that it bypasses or fails to reach many of the towns and cities that could most do with investment. Burnley, Bradford and many places like them will remain just as remote from the inter- city rail network as before.

The biggest tragedy? No one in Government, when presented with the plans for HS2 years ago, asked why the project would cost three times as much, mile for mile, as high- speed lines in Europe.

One answer is because we are a densely populated country, and carving a track through the Chilterns came at huge expense to the environmen­t and in terms of the compulsory purchase of people’s homes and businesses.

Had that question been asked, we would have spared ourselves one of the most expensive white elephants in the history of British infrastruc­ture, and avoided the bad news that continues to pile up around this benighted project.

 ?? ?? Artist impression: How HS2 train link may look
Artist impression: How HS2 train link may look
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