Rail 800: HS2 at risk from Brexit

The government’s top civil servant has been quietly looking at the costs of HS2 but there is actually a more tangible threat to the future of the project. While it is pretty certain that the first stage of HS2 will get through the House of Lords after sailing through its Commons vote, there is still a possible scenario where the now £55bn project could get into trouble. While on the face of it the referendum over EU membership has nothing to do with HS2, the outcome could definitely affect the project’s future.

I am a strong but pessimistic supporter of remaining in the EU. The whole referendum came about because of the narrow political considerations of David Cameron and the Tory party who were scared of the inroads being made by UKIP. There was, actually, no great public appetite for the vote but out of cowardice and lack of principle Cameron promised one in the 2015 manifesto.

Now he could get his comeuppance as a Brexit vote is quite likely (though as the useless Mystic  Wolmar is convinced of a Leave win, there is still hope). According to one political commentator, Cameron would last barely hours in office after the defeat and his sidekick George Osborne would have to go as collateral damage. That would leave HS2 with an uncertain future. Boris Johnson is certainly no great fan though again Mystic gives him no change of winning the Tory leadership context because, and this may be a mistake, the members in the shires would recognise him as a Trump-lite flaky figure who does not come across as a credible prime minister. The favourite has to be Michael Gove who is the only credible minister campaigning on the Leave side and it is unclear what is his position on HS2. The Chancellor – Chris Grayling? – in a Gove government would probably determine the scheme’s fate and since the Treasury is known to be increasingly opposed to the project, all bets would be off.

Apart from this bit of uncertainty it is very likely that HS2 is a done deal, despite the doubts over cost, but there are still many issues to sort out. That was clear from a conference of academics and sceptics I attended in York in mid April, with the odd supporter like Jim Steer of Greengauge 21 thrown in. Jim made the case for HS2, pointing out that rail’s modal share of journeys above 25 miles had increased from 8 per cent to 14 per cent in the past 20 years and that with rail travel as a whole still rising by 4 per cent annually, the case for HS2 was unanswerable.

With most attendees at the conference accepting that the project was going to be built, the emphasis was on trying to affect aspects of the scheme which were not set in stone. The most obvious is Euston where the most recent ‘solution’, a three phase rebuilding that will not be completed until after the opening of phase two of the line, seems particularly unsatisfactory. Camden faces 20 years of disruption which is more than any community should have bear. As one opponent put it, ‘there will be children born in Camden who will go to university without ever seeing their local area free of building work’.

There was considerable support at the conference for the plan put forward  by Lord Berkeley to divert the London Midland services via Old Oak Common through the Crossrail tunnel. This would kill two birds with one stone as 14 Crossrail trains per hour are scheduled to reverse at Paddington which is a nonsensical piece of waste of capacity.  HS2 has rejected this scheme without much explanation with the suspicion that it is just because the idea was not invented by them.

Several other negative aspects of the scheme that could be addressed. The most obvious is connectivity with the classic rail network. The lack of any connections south of Lichfield and only a couple north of that means HS2 is essentially separate from the rest of the rail system. My suspicion has always been that this is because the eventual plan is to leave the option open of privatising it as a separate entity but it could still be remedied not least because it would provide diversionary routes should there be a landslide or some other major mishap.

That raises, too, the odd decision to have two different fleets, one of which would be built to the Berne gauge and therefore unable to run elsewhere. HS2 justifies this on the basis that this would allow larger and more comfortable rolling stock with extra capacity to be run but the difference is marginal and would make the system operationally more difficult.

The big issue, however, where mitigating measures are impossible, is the problem of climate change and carbon emissions. While we were having these detailed discussion about the various aspects of the scheme and the way that improvements could be made, Meyer Hillman, one of the foremost writers about climate change got up and spoke words that have terrific resonance coming after 11 months of record world temperatures. He said that there was one reason above all others why the scheme should be shelved:  ‘Will we be able to tell our grandchildren that we did our best to try to stop this global catastrophe? Is spending £55bn or more on a scheme that actually makes the risk of global warming higher justifiable in any way?’ Those are questions which even the most fervent supporters of HS2 ought to find most difficult to answer.

There is no environmental case for the line. On HS2 Ltd’s own figures, only 1 per cent of passengers – and I think that is optimistic – will transfer from planes and just 4 per cent from cars. The vast majority would otherwise have used classic rail and the remainder, about a quarter, would not otherwise have travelled. Colin Divall, the emeritus professor of Railway studies, pointed out, in a recent book Transport policy:  learning lessons from history that nowhere in the official statements emanating from ministers of HS2 is there ‘any recognition just how sharply greenhouse gas emissions from land-based transport must be reduced by 2050 in order to meet the UK’s legally mandated contribution to combating climate change’. There has, in other words, been no attempt to talk about climate change.

Divall concludes eloquently that ‘HS2 appears as the latest chapter in a story of appeals to technology as a means of allowing us to keep moving without wrecking ourselves or the planet’.  Gove and whoever succeeds Osborne as Chancellor after a Brexit vote should work out a response to that challenge before endorsing the decision of their predecessors. Despite all this and my scepticism about HS2, I am still desperate for us to vote for Remain, for all kinds of other reasons, most notably that we have had 70 years of near total peace in Europe thanks partly to the EU. But one can see the temptation for HS2 opponents to vote for Brexit. Please don’t!


Why are railways so expensive to build?


I was rather amazed to discover recently that the Victoria Line cost just £70m to build in the 1960s, equivalent to, perhaps, £1.5bn in today’s money. Meanwhile, today, Crossrail 1 is set to £15bn and while, admittedly, it is a more complex project with twice the length of tunnels, ten times the cost seems  extravagant. Then there is Crossrail 2 variously quoted at £27bn to £32bn which seems even more over the top and then there is HS2 itself which a recent House of Lords committee found was nine times the cost per mile of the French TGV.

Reader Neil Roth, ne of the people I was discussing this with at a recent meeting hosted by the Campaign for Better Transport, sent me a list of a dozen or so possible explanations for why the Victoria Line was such good value. It was built before the Disability Discrimination Act and the Kings Cross Fire, which both led to more stringent requirements on new railways, and its stations were nearly all on existing sites, therefore requiring no great innovative designs – unlike the subsequent Jubilee Line Extension which has wonderful stations.  A few corners have been cut, too, like having only one depot (at the northern end) and too few platforms at the Brixton terminus, and of course the Tube tunnels are much smaller than those on Crossrail. Health and Safety was not such an important (and expensive) consideration (the dad of one of my best friends worked on the line and, my mate, Liam, used to be carried for fun down the 100ft or so excavated hole  in a bucket lowered by crane) which did clearly reduce the cost.

Nevertheless, while all these factors and several more offer part of the explanation, it still strikes me as odd that while in most industries technology leads to reduced costs, in the railways the opposite seems the case.


As this is the 800 edition of Rail, I’ve been asked what was my most memorable column after more than 500. There is always the hope that I have had some influence and made a difference, hopefully positive, but mainly I like asking questions that I know are difficult to answer – I see that as the main role of good journalism. So I refer readers, via my website, to Rail 441 where I first asked ‘What are franchises for?’.

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