Labour must question the reasoning behind HS2 more closely

HS2 seems to be moving inexorably forward with the letting this week of several initial contracts to the tune of £6.6bn for tunnels and preparatory work. While the project has not quite reached the point of no return it is certainly odds on that the first section, the line from London to Birmingham, will go ahead.  Yet apart from the Parliamentary bill process which was more akin to a planning enquiry than a political debate, there has been remarkably little scrutiny for what will be Britain’s largest ever engineering project.

While there are doubts about the need for the line and about its precise function, it is the enormous cost of the scheme that could still be its undoing. The Labour peer, Tony Berkeley who broadly supports the scheme, has repeatedly tried to obtain an accurate estimate of the cost of the project and has worked with a leading quantity surveyor, Michael Byng, who reckons that the first phase through to Birmingham will cost £48bn, precisely double the current figure of £24bn suggested by HS2 Ltd, the government agency building the scheme. Byng has analysed every component of the project in great detail but in discussions with HS2 staff, Berkeley has come up against a brick wall. He says: ‘I cannot understand how they have spent upwards of £1bn so far but do not have a detailed assessment of the costs.’

He points to the fact that HS2 admits that the first six miles from Euston to Old Oak Common (in Acton) will cost £8bn, leaving just £16bn for the rest of the 113 mile project. Since the schemes announced this week which mainly consist of tunnels, will absorb approximately another £6bn, that leaves just £10bn for all the rest which does seem unrealistic.

If Berkeley and Byng are correct, it implies that the whole scheme through to Leeds and Manchester may well be £100bn, dwarfing even Trident. Unions have already pointed out that much of this money will flow abroad since the UK industry does not have the capacity to build such a massive project.

The case for HS2 is already pretty slender. Of course spending these billions will create thousands of jobs but that is not a justification for it since all the money is coming from taxpayers and the money has lots of potential other use ranging from hospitals and schools to housing and overseas aid. Supporters say that the line is essential to increase capacity of the rail network and to breach the North South divide, and they have abandoned earlier claims that its main purpose was to shorten journey times between London and major cities in the Midlands and the North.

However, the new reasons for justifying this colossal expenditure hardly cut the mustard. Services out of Euston are by no means the most overcrowded out of London and increased demand could be met by cheaper upgrading of existing lines. Experience across the world suggests that when stronger cities like London are connected with economically weaker ones by high speed transport networks, the benefits tend to flow to those already thriving.

Even if one accepts their arguments- and as a long term HS2 sceptic I don’t – there has to be a question of whether there is a limit to spending on this project. Whatever its value, is it really worth £80bn say, at a conservative estimate, or even £100bn.

The Labour Party has rather uncritically supported the scheme. Politically, of course, with the promise of regenerating swathes of the north, it has been difficult to do otherwise. However, Labour MPs should insist on far greater scrutiny of this project by, like Lord Berkeley, drilling down on the detail and ensuring that it is built in a cost effective way. A huge saving could be made, for example, if the line were built to a maximum speed of 300 kph, the maximum of most high speed networks around the world, rather than, as currently specified, 400 kph which adds enormous costs both to construction and, crucially, operation. There are many other similar examples which require similar detailed attention. If the costs of the first section go out of control, it will jeopardise the completion of the second section, which will deny northern towns of most of the benefits of the project, precisely the reason why Labour has supported it.



  • Pelton level

    While I’m generally a supporter of the project, I fail to see what benefits are obtained by adding 50mph to the design speed for this line. Given that no journey on the line will be longer than 200 miles, the MAXIMUM additional time saving will be no more than ten minutes.

  • Actually far less than that — it takes a long time to reach top speed and therefore saving will be probably at most a couple of minutes, and cost a lot in fuel

  • Pelton level

    TGV takes 5 minutes 20 seconds and 11.2 miles to get up to 200 mph so 250 will probably be achievable in about 10 (unless the trains are bimode to get over the gaps in the wires on the conventional network they have to run on to).

  • Stratfan

    You mention 24 billion for phase 1 which is alarming enough but a recent written reply to Lord Berkeley states 27 billion!
    Why don’t they just admit they don’t know what it will cost and as Grayling blurted out on the today programme that they will spend what it takes!

  • Noam Bleicher

    If we had known the costs of GWML electrification at the outset, would we have even started the project? No. Some stuff just needs doing and we just need to get on with it.

    Walmart and other railway commentators apparently prefer to spend the next few decades deciding on the ideal format for a new line – HSUK, Greengauge 21 etc – instead of one they don’t quite like.

    Meanwhile runway and motorway construction continues apace. We need HS2 up and running to undermine the case for further unsustainable road an air infrastructure.

  • Noam Bleicher

    * Wolmar, curse auto correct.

  • Stratfan

    Switch from road and air is neglible which is hardly surprising as it has so few stops!

  • Nsar

    The DfT’s forecast for traffic on the Strategic Road Network says that HS2 would have too little impact to be modelled. We are talking about less than 1% of long distance car journeys being taken off the SRN – a rounding error.
    HS2’s own analysis shows that it would be Carbon positive in the first 60 years of operation and can only ever be Carbon negative if the UK switches electricity production out of fossil fuels, which seems unlikely.
    I’m afraid HS2 is in no way an environmentally sound scheme, chiefly because it is designed for maximum speed.
    Obviously Phase 1 would have no impact on domestic air travel and Phase 2, if it does remove some domestic air would see those landing slots be taken up by more lucrative long haul.

  • LesF

    Excessive cost is only one of the many failures of HS2. Others include the abandonment of the connection to HS1, failure to integrate with the existing rail network, the use of inefficient terminus stations and out-of-town parkways, cutting of existing services as HS2 extracts passengers from parallel routes. All because HS2 slavishly followed EU requirements for new lines to built to EU loading gauge so the “fat” trains can’t pass UK gauge tunnels, bridges and platforms. And the design speed of 400km/h will never be achieved. There may be technological advances but the laws of physics will not change.
    Like Christian Wolmar I support rail but recognise that HS2 is an abysmal plan that will bring rail into disrepute when the awful truth dawns. An independent review is needed urgently before the UK makes a laughing stock of itself on a scale vastly bigger than the GW electrification disaster.

  • Noam Bleicher

    Short-haul air travel is hugely inefficient as a far greater proportion of the journey is spent taking off. Cutting out the nonsense of flights to Newcastle and Manchester is of great benefit to the nation and the environment. Even Edinburgh and Glasgow will be close to the three-hour watershed where rail starts to win over air traffic, particularly if they get the wifi product right.
    PS I wouldn’t rely on DfT forecasts for HS2 patronage; they always seriously underestimate rail demand for all rail projects.

  • Yokells

    It makes sense to future proof the line for higher speeds. If the victorians had not of done this with some foresight then we wouldnt be running at 125mph on existing network. I would suggest there is little difference in cost in building a line for 200mph or 240mph. Both still needs the same amount of heavy engineering. But run it at current HSR design speeds.

    However what i cannot understand is train procurement. I understand from Modern Railways that HS2 is doing a IEP on train specification. Instead of specifying a train that could be delivered off the shelf (but obviously adapted for UK loading gauge) like the Velaro or AGV. They are specifying a higher top speed than standard HSR stock for normal operation. So we bespoke stock to get an extra 10mph top speed over 120mile journey. Inconsequential time savings at much higher costs.

  • Nsar

    If Virgin’s Vision 2020 plans are realised HS2 offers very little time advantage for Edinburgh and Glasgow.
    Rail forecasts are a mixed bag, look at Eurostar or for that matter Regional Eurostar. The former was miles out and the latter never got off the ground. Even if DfT were out by 100% the impact on roads is negligible.

  • Pelton level

    It makes some sense to have an alignment capable of higher speeds but laying the track for these speeds, like procuring the trains, pushes the price up significantly.