“THE facts around HS2 have changed,” was the verdict offered by British prime minister, Mr Rishi Sunak, when scrapping the planned Phase 2 extension of the high-speed project from Birmingham to Manchester and East Midlands Parkway on October 4. The implications of the decision on Britain’s future transport policy are still to be entirely worked out, but this is undoubtedly a hammer blow to rail’s future prosperity in the country.
HS2 had already been trimmed back from its original plan. The 198km eastern leg north of East Midlands Parkway to Leeds was binned in the government’s Integrated Rail Plan of 2021. Yet the cost savings here were not enough. And while the government was keen to stress that it will reallocate the expected savings of £36bn from ditching the section to Manchester to other transport projects, the Network North document, seems as ill-thought through as the plan to scrap Phase 2.
Depressingly, Network North also includes a number of road projects, and an eye-watering £8.3bn to fix potholes. Yet it is Sunak’s plan to limit HS2’s future central London terminus at Euston to six platforms, and sell off the land needed for Phase 2 thus preventing the revival of the full high-speed scheme, that may see him join Beeching and Serpell as one of the foes of the British railway in the years to come.
HS2 of course has its problems. Management issues have blighted the project, construction of which is underway on the 223km Phase 1 from London to Birmingham. An investigation by The Sunday Times published on October 22 reveals a culture of cost cover-ups within HS2 Ltd, the government company overseeing the project. There are also numerous instances where construction has started on some elements that have yet to secure approval, sometimes resulting in expensive reworking. Significant cash would also have been saved if the government had been brave enough not to construct 16.5km of railway tunnel through open countryside in the Chilterns. This would have eased the overall cost burden, strengthening the case for Phase 2.
HS2 is unfortunately not the only railway mega project to go awry recently.
Australia’s Inland Rail is also under pressure as costs soar. Work on the 1727km dedicated freight corridor between Melbourne and Brisbane has been underway since 2019. But, like HS2, Inland Rail has been plagued by poor management at the very top. A review of the project by Dr Kerry Schott published in April uncovered confusion about where it will start and end, and revealed that the estimated total cost had soared to more than $A 30bn ($US 19bn). The Australian government remains behind Inland Rail but there is a lot of pressure on whoever is appointed to lead it next to turn things around.
The climate crisis frankly demands better. It must be possible to deliver these projects on time and on budget.
The news about HS2 emerged while I was at Railway Interchange in the United States. The US is another country that seemingly struggles to deliver major infrastructure projects - the California high-speed project is an obvious example.
While California continues to plod along - the 275km Central Valley section is now not expected to open until 2030-33 at a cost of $US 35bn - other US passenger railways still eagerly await the $US 102bn of funding from the Biden administration’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, most of which has yet to be released.
A session on lobbying at Railway Interchange provided valuable insight on how the sector might position itself to make the best of this opportunity, providing some wider pointers for infrastructure projects in general. Notably, the imperative to win buy-in from local and national politicians early by clearly communicating the benefits of the project, and crucially the jobs it will create, as a way of building and maintaining support from decision-makers over the medium and long term.
Projects after all need champions. HS2 lacked this from the outset and has been a communications disaster. It was always a project about network capacity. By transferring all of the 47 daily express trains off the West Coast Main Line onto HS2, capacity would be available for more stopping services, and critically freight, a big loser in the plan to scrap Phase 2.
Yet this was never explained in the early days. Instead, the dominant narrative has been about saving 20 minutes on journeys between London and Birmingham and HS2’s vast, often exaggerated, cost. This made it much easier for the government to kill Phase 2 as the benefits were not abundantly clear.
The climate crisis frankly demands better. It must be possible to deliver these projects on time and on budget. And there are positive examples of this: France, Spain, Italy and Japan have all successfully built high-speed railways, often under difficult circumstances. Critically these countries have rolling infrastructure development programmes, meaning valuable skills are not lost when one project concludes. China’s construction of a staggering 40,000km high-speed network since 2008 is an incredible achievement. While their regard for the environmental and human costs is questionable, Chinese firms have followed a clear plan and have adopted standardised construction to become experts at delivering these projects. There are lessons to be learned here.
Many of the management problems that HS2 has faced can be attributed to a lack of similar expertise. Britain’s first high-speed line and last major railway project, HS1, was completed in 2007, and was the country’s first new mainline railway for over a century. HS2 effectively started from scratch, which is very difficult to do. But it shouldn’t mean throwing in the towel when things get tough.
The British government needs to get serious about reducing transport emissions. And that means modal shift from the country’s congested road network onto rail. This is a concept lost on the current government, to the detriment of the motorist that Sunak pledges to support, and, most importantly, the environment. It is not good enough to swap what is the right project for a lot of piecemeal schemes that will not have nearly as much long-term impact. It should also not be a question of either or.
Unfortunately, Sunak has wrecked this generation’s best shot at making a tangible difference to Britain’s transport system. We will all count the cost for years to come.