HS2, the high-speed rail network planned to link London and Birmingham and beyond, could be killed in a government review – and that could have serious repercussions for the UK and the future of rail investment.
The first phase of the High-Speed 2 project is the line between Birmingham and London, which is planned to open in 2026, with additional links to Manchester and Leeds hoped to completed by 2033, with trains topping speeds of 250mph. That will slash travel times and boost rail capacity, which is key as growing populations put pressure on already strained networks. The project is budgeted at £56 billion, with costs already expected to rise by as much as £30bn by the time HS2 is up and running.
All of those plans are now at risk, despite work already having started. The Department for Transport (DfT) has revealed an independent review investigating whether and how the project should proceed, considering whether HS2 Ltd, the company managing the project, can deliver on its promises, as well as the promised benefits, including capacity gains, economic boosts, and environmental benefits, including carbon reduction – as well as the full costs, with the budget already expected to be far exceeded.
The transport secretary Grant Shapps told Sky News that the aim was to get the full facts and costs, though the panel of experts is being forced to report quickly, within several weeks. “Then, we will know and we will be in a much better position to make the decision to go or no go by the end of the year,” Shapps said. The review is being led by Douglas Oakervee, a former chairman of HS2 Ltd; given that, it’s no surprise he’s seen as being in favour of the project. However, his deputy is Lord Berkeley, a prominent critic who has warned about rising costs of the project.
“The fact they’ve got someone who seems to be in favour it as the chair with someone quite skeptical as a deputy will undoubtedly create tensions,” says Christian Wolmar, a transport expert and rail analyst. “But it… also means this is going to be a proper look at it. It’s not going to be some sort of whitewash.”
If HS2 is cancelled, what does it mean for the UK? The aim for HS2 is to boost rail capacity, with long, fast trains carrying up to 1,100 passengers with services up to 14 times an hour. Towns and cities that HS2 passes by but doesn’t stop at will also receive a capacity boost, as travellers going from Birmingham to London and vice versa will be siphoned off from those services.
Gareth Dennis, a railway engineering consultant and director at Permanent Rail Engineering, says that alongside the 30 per cent boost in capacity that HS2 will directly provide, it will allow more services to be run on the existing railways.
“When you run a mixed traffic railway, there’s a lot of empty space to allow for the different speeds and stopping patterns, and fast trains create the biggest ‘gaps’ – hence HS2 coming along and taking all of the express trains onto the new line leaves lots of empty space to be filled by new services, plus everything can squeeze up more closely together as the difference in speeds reduces,” he says. He predicts the capacity released by HS2 could double the evening peak seats between Doncaster and Leeds from 1,720 passengers per hour per direction to 4,860.
HS2 is also seen as a way to boost the Northern economy, with a report from KPMG predicting Birmingham’s economy will be nudged up by as much as 4.2 per cent, with increases also seen in Manchester, Leeds, London and everywhere else along the route, totalling a £15bn annual boost. However, a report by MPs suggested those figures may be overegged and “essentially made up”, and that some cities may well lose out economically.
There are other potential downsides. Building the new rail line has meant ripping up streets all the way down the line, with the project buying up 902 residential properties and other pieces of land to be demolished to make way for building works, with the Woodland Trust calling it the “biggest single threat to our ancient woodlands”.
And then there’s the costs. The project was budgeted at a whopping £56bn, but the non-executive chair of HS2 Ltd has admitted it may cost another £30bn. It’s rather difficult to consider a cost-benefit analysis if the former aspect of the equation is so questionable.
The environmental impact is also worth considering, and HS2 will be an electric line. Despite that, environmental groups including the Green Party and Extinction Rebellion has come out against HS2, with the former calling it “vandalism”.
Dennis argues that any effort to get cars off roads is worthwhile, pointing to figures from his consultancy Permanent Rail Engineering suggesting that transport makes up 30 per cent of Britain’s greenhouse-gas emissions, with 89 per cent of that from cars versus 10 per cent from rail (and the remaining small slice from domestic aviation; international flights are apparently considered separately.) “The carbon emissions from the project’s construction are trivial,” he adds. “They are the equivalent to about three weeks of greenhouse gas emissions from road transport.”
And when it comes to HS2, for every argument, there’s a counter argument. The money spent building HS2 could fund the electrification of the network, slashing carbon emissions more quickly, and there’s nothing to suggest HS2 will necessarily draw drivers to trade their cars for commuting by rail, not least because there’s only a small number of stations — instead, we could invest in light rail in cities.
Or there’s the argument that the faster connection to London will only drain the north’s economy, as businesses set up in the capital instead. On the other hand, forget the destroyed woodlands, HS2 will see the planting of seven million new trees across the country. Plus, more freight trains can run on existing rail, which is good news for drivers and carbon cutting. The arguments go back and forth; dip a toe into online discussions about HS2, and it can be as vitriolic as the Brexit debate.
Given all that, it’s clear more information — especially on costs — is genuinely needed, but it’s difficult to predict what the review will find and what the outcome will be. And regardless of what the review does reveal, Wolmar expects the final decision to have more to do with politics than facts.
“I think this has to be viewed through one lens: which is what is beneficial for Boris Johnson in the short term,” says Wolmar. “The ultimate decision will be made on political grounds.” Cancelling it entirely won’t be advantageous to Johnson, as it may be seen as neglecting the north, adds Wolmar; that suggests Johnson will have to invest in the North in another way if HS2 is cancelled, in rail or otherwise — he’s already done so with a pledge to fund a cross-Pennine rail link.
Even if the review does find that the costs of HS2 outweigh the benefits, the entire project may not be scrapped. The review notice suggests a few alternatives, including limiting the project to only Phase 1 between London and Birmingham, terminating the London line at Old Oak Common in the northwest of the city rather than Euston, and “reprioritising” the project so the northern phases are built before or entirely instead of the southern link to London, among other ideas. In short, if HS2 doesn’t happen, something else likely will.
Johnson likes big infrastructure projects – such as the Garden Bridge – but it’s clear that rail in this country is complicated and troublesome. The real victim, regardless of the review and the government’s decision, could be our aspirations. “Cancelling HS2 means that any alternatives won’t get a spade in the ground for another ten years, and that’s ignoring the political reality that nobody will bother specifying another national public transport project again, let alone a high-speed one,” says Dennis.
As British cities grow, we need railways to help keep commuters and freight off the roads to avoid carbon emissions, and we need a strong Northern network to balance the dominance of the south. Those questions remain, whether or not HS2 is deemed the right answer.
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