Now scrap the rest of HS2 and fix cross-northern links
With the arrival of another round of delays, Chris Blackhurst says the government should be brave and cut its losses
Only in Britain. It’s hard to think of another country where the construction of a high-speed train service we’re told repeatedly is desperately needed would be slowed deliberately.
To put it simply: either the new railway is filling a gaping hole or it isn’t. And the fact that the government has now delayed building north of Birmingham by two years and the line won’t be
going into central London to Euston, not at first at least, suggests the latter is correct.
Apparently, inflationary costs of building materials and services are to blame, but either it is urgently required and the money can be found or it isn’t. The lack of urgency says it is not required at all. In which case, why not go the whole distance and scrap it completely? London to Birmingham can be completed, since work is well underway, but surely it now makes sense to ditch the rest?
You would think so, but this is a political decision and politicians don’t like being seen to pull the plug on anything that might cause loss of face. This, don’t forget, is a flagship infrastructure investment, one that successive governments and ministers have championed.
But in the future, if academics wanted a textbook example of where government can go wrong, then HS2 can fill that book and more. It’s a £100bn vanity project.
How did we get to the point of committing ourselves to a vast infrastructure project when even those who ought to be its most strident supporters can’t see the need?
Despite what ministers say, the North of England never asked for HS2. As a Northerner myself I never heard anyone call for a high-speed rail link with London. Indeed, in my lifetime, the journey times have improved so much – down to just two hours
and 10 minutes to Manchester – that they earn praise. No one in my presence said they had to become shorter still.
The problem in the North is not the up and down, to and from the capital, but across, from Liverpool to Manchester to Leeds, Sheffield, Hull. That is bad. Added to that, the fact there is only one cross-country motorway means getting around the North, as opposed to going to and from London, is often nightmarish, even though the distances are small.
Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, said as much recently: “But we argue [HS2] is 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 Burnham, “King of the North”, thinks so, then how did we get to the point of committing ourselves to a vast 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, that’s how. It 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.
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 service. Environmental campaigners, local Nimbys and their MPs rose up in protest along the planned track, with the result that greater mileage than was intended must be buried underground in incredibly costly tunnels.
Seeing as the symbolism of not having anything called HS2 would be too humiliating politically to bear, the first phase should remain. After that, government should drop the lot
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.
Euston, the London station intended to be the start and end of the line, is a concrete eyesore, everyone is agreed. But what should replace it, again, keeps altering. It also happens to be in the middle of an expensive city in which to build. These factors go towards explaining the ever-rising total.
Seeing as Birmingham is underway and the symbolism of not having anything called HS2 would be too humiliating politically to bear, the first phase should remain. After that, government should drop the lot. Andrew Gilligan, the former Downing Street transport special adviser, has said that cancelling it would save £44bn or higher. Gilligan is opposed to HS2, calling it “Britain’s greatest infrastructure mistake in half a century”.
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 some of the saving was to go on boosting cross-country services, that would be fine. Forget further delays, it makes sense to call a complete halt. Sense that sadly was not in evidence when the decision to go ahead was taken in the first place.
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