HS2: Where are we going, and why are we going there? – Part 1

Commentary on the legislative and construction progress of High Speed 2

You may be sick from hearing about it. It was years ago when the proposal for HS2 first entered the headlines, with years of front-page articles criticising the cost, progress and the very idea of HS2 soon following. It’s recently entered the news again as it’s come under review from parliament. With thousands of articles on the topic now existing, often biased and often outdated, it has become difficult to see what is fact, what is speculation and how far in the pipeline HS2 has really come. We hope to clear this up and we’re going to start at the beginning.

In 2007, the construction work for HS1 was completed. Britain’s first high speed rail route, 108 km in length, connected London to the Channel Tunnel for the cost of around £7 bn. Whether the project was on time and on budget is debated, as well as whether it is delivering the economic benefits it promised. All that is a whole other story, but nicely foreshadows the controversy of HS2, so let’s move on. In 2009, a government commissioned study found that the West Coast Main Railway (WCMR), the trainline connecting the Midlands to London, would be at full capacity by 2025. A series of proposals to address this problem were investigated, including infrastructure upgrades of varying degrees of magnitude, additional standard lines, lengthening trains and platforms, increasing the amount of trains per hour and, of course, building High Speed 2.

Even the initial proposal for HS2 was far more ambitions than HS1 had ever been. It suggested a railway line with the capacity to support trains travelling up to 400 km/h be built from London to the West Midlands, with potential for the line to extend north as far as Scotland, at the cost of £33 bn. Hundreds of pages worth of documents outlining the government’s consideration of the alternative options exist online, making it somewhat time-consuming to figure out the details of why the government decided that HS2 was the best option. The following quote gives a good outline:

“There is a tendency for successive enhancements to existing lines to show diminishing returns as the more cost-effective projects are identified and implemented first. All four lines [of the WCMR] have undergone upgrading programmes in recent years and as the most obvious and cost-effective schemes are implemented, the opportunities for further enhancement have become increasingly limited and/or expensive. Phases one and two of HS2 will provide substantial released capacity on the WCML, the MML and the ECML.

Essentially, the claim was that existing rail-routes had already been upgraded to such an extent that further upgrades would we far less cost-effective than the construction of a new high-speed line. And so, in 2009, HS2 Ltd. was established and the proposal of the new high-speed line, deemed the best solution, was advanced. Some tweaks to the route took place, with the plan being that HS2 connect London, Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, the Channel Tunnel and Heathrow in a Y-shaped route, transporting 26,000 people every hour. Construction was due to begin in 2015, with the London – Birmingham section (phase one) to be completed by 2026, and the Birmingham – Leeds – Manchester section (phase two) to be completed by 2033. The total route was to be 530 km long and would involve:

  • 127 km of tunnels and cuttings to minimise environmental impact
  • 21 km of above-ground track through Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty
  • 3100 properties to be affected by noise
  • 172 residential demolitions
  • A benefit to cost ration between £1.8-2.5 for every pound spent
  • A UK productivity rise of £15 bn/year (2013 pound value) – an increase of 0.8% GDP
  • The planting of 7 million trees
  • A mandated Environmental Impact Assessment
  • The project was predicted to be carbon neutral

As we all know, the project, due to its cost, environmental impact and scale, was met with fierce resistance. And soon the storm of headlines began…

Legislative progress was slow, with the scheme having difficulties making it through the House of Lords. The models used to determine the financial viability of HS2 in comparison to the alternative suggested upgrades were criticised, as the Department for Transport admitted to using an outdated model to estimate the productivity increase associated with railway use. In 2016, a year after initial construction was supposed to begin, it was announced that the cost of HS2 would in fact be £56 bn.  Bearing in mind the population of the UK is roughly 65 million, this cost isn’t far shy from a bill of £1000 per UK taxpayer. Moreover, this heightened cost came with scaled-back plan for the route that HS2 was to take, with the new route featuring no connection to Heathrow, the Channel Tunnel or HS1. Allan Cook, the chairman of HS2 Ltd, predicted that the costs of HS2 would rise further to £75 – 85 bn, and Boris Johnson described the costs as “spiralling”. Ministers have since ditched even this price tag and it remains uncertain how high the costs could come.

The environmental concerns of HS2 are also abundant, with many environmental campaign groups rejecting the assertion that HS2 be part of low carbon and sustainable transport policy. The government’s claim that HS2 would take an estimated 9 million journeys off the road network and cut up to 4.5 million air journey’s each year was difficult to defend, with HS2 Ltd.’s own analysis predicting only a low number of passengers switching from high carbon modes of transport to HS2. Allegations that carbon emissions from construction and use of materials had been downplayed were made by the HS2 Action Alliance and the UK’s shrinking domestic aviation industry casts scepticism on the assertion that HS2 would reduce demands for flying. The claim that HS2 would be carbon neutral is considered questionable at best, and an outright lie by many climate activists.

The list of problems HS2 faced and still faces goes on…

  • Phase one’s expected opening date of 2026 hasn’t changed, but each stage of HS2 is behind schedule, with phase one’s Royal Assent being delayed from 2015 to 2017
  • Construction, due to start in 2017, only began in 2019, even then only to limited capacity
  • Sign-off on the major civil construction contracts have been further delayed until the end of 2019
  • Many the 350,000 trees planted to date died in 2018’s hot spell – it’s unclear how many are still alive now
  • HS2 would pass through or adversely affect over 130 protected wildlife sites, including 10 Sites of Special Scientific Interest and over 50 ancient woodlands

Construction work has indeed begun in Euston station, and signs of progress can be seen in Birmingham too, but other than that it seems that while the costs of HS2 have ballooned, the infrastructure progress has stagnated. This August (2019), the government announced it would review the project and perform a cost-benefit analysis and give it a “no or no-go” decision by the end of 2019. £7 bn has already been spent on the project, however the Transport Secretary has said “Just because you’ve spent a lot of money on something does not mean you should plough more and more money into it.” Despite the rather daunting list of problems, Boris Johnson has still said he would “hesitate for a long time before scrapping any major infrastructure project”. It seems that the project’s future, while uncertain, still exists for the time being.  Speculation has been heard that even if the project were given the go ahead, it would again be scaled back, with potentially only the northern section being built.

And there you have it – this is where we are now. You can find ample analysis as to what is in store for the project next year in countless articles online, but we turn now to a slightly different question: what alternatives to HS2 are critics proposing and are they more viable than HS2? Find out in our next commentary to come next week…

Written by Valentin Theil, Communications Officer at SWM