Mystery over tunnelling costs as DfT tries to manage media coverage

One of the big mysteries of yesterday’s HS2 announcement was how the Department had pulled off the trick of adding in five miles of extra tunnelling and yet seemingly the cost of the project has remained the same.

Pressed on this point on Newsnight, Norman Baker was vague saying there was an extra cost,but he was very unspecific and was not pressed by the other participants in the discussion. However, buried in the ”economic appraisal’ document, the capital cost of the London to Birmingham section is revealed as £18.8bn – in other words nearly £2bn more than the previously used  £17bn figure.  I initially thought this explained the rise but as Transport Briefing explains in a comment below, this may not relate to the extra tunnelling, but may be associated with extra capital costs on completion and as TB points out, total capital costs in that document is £36bn – but with DfT not responding to requests for information, it is hard to pin it down – costs in the command paper are £32.7bn, almost equally split between the two, which therefore still implies that despite the extra tunnelling, the overall cost of the Birmingham scheme has gone down – which is incomprehensible. The extra cost of the tunnels has, like the line itself,  simply been buried.

This was all part of a very carefully worked out news management strategy for the whole HS2 announcement. First, on saturday, the department published the appraisal by Network Rail of the alternatives – which was less detailed and thorough than the Atkins appraisal published yesterday which suggests that the alternatives are actually a good deal – in orer to weaken opposition arguments. Then on Tuesday, a whole swathe of documents was placed on the website at 9 30 – and it promptly crashed, of course – looking at the alternatives, the economic appraisal, and so on. There was a briefing, too, from civil servants but only for a handful of national transport correspondents – not including me – were invite and there was no press conference. Then at 3 30 Justine Greening gave a statement and answered questions in Parliament.

Actually, she was pretty good on her feet and gave confident answers. Yet, she was kept off the airwaves, with no live programme discussions – left to the rather untidy looking Baker – and therefore managed to avoid questions on the increase in cost and other details.  For the most part, it was left to the rather flaky and shaky Pete Waterman and the suave former Transport Secretary Lord Adonis – in other words, an ageing pop impressario and a former transport secretary – to put the case for the lne rather than the elected government. Bizarre.

While this news management has been, for the Department, relatively successful – at least when Waterman kept his temper, unlike on Radio 5 when he berated me for cycling – there was still plenty of coverage of the opponents’ case and each time the govt uses these techniques, a little bit of democracy is lost….

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