It seems that the HS2 gravy train is impossible to stop however much its finances go off the rails. Or at least until the election is over.
A review into the high speed rail scheme, leaked yesterday, argues that plans should continue. This is despite its cost rising to at least £88bn, almost three times the original estimate of £33bn when HS2 was first proposed a decade ago. And there are suggestions the final bill could even go up beyond £100bn.
It’s already delayed too – with the Government confirming in September that the two target completion stages of 2026 and 2033 will be pushed back to between 2028 and 2031 for the first section to Birmingham and Manchester, and 2035 for the line to Leeds.
Yet, for the time being it is safe. The project has the support of all three main political parties, despite the widespread criticisms of the cost and other aspects, such as the lack of connections with the existing rail network.
But the fact remains that the project is massively flawed – and despite the positive gloss, the review reveals many of these issues. Thanks to an obsession with speed, the project’s directors have overlooked connectivity – which should have been their priority.
Given the huge price tag – enough to build 100 new large hospitals – this is not a happy situation.
Even some supporters of the railway, like myself, argue that it would be much better to spend this money on lots of smaller schemes, to get rid of bottlenecks and improve regional services, rather than building a line that will only benefit a narrow corridor of the country.
The main arguments in HS2’s favour are that it will speed up journeys between London and both the Midlands and the North, and provide a massive amount of extra capacity to cope with growing numbers of passengers.
Birmingham will be reached in just 49 minutes compared with 82 today and there will be 14 trains per hour in each direction, each capable of carrying around 1,000 people. The West Coast main line, which it largely parallels, is crowded and passenger numbers on the line have increased far faster, according to the review, than envisaged when the scheme was first mooted.
But HS2 will have very few stations as it will serve only the major cities and therefore people travelling to and from smaller towns on the West Coast line, such as Coventry, Stoke, and Stafford, who get an excellent fast service today, are likely to lose out as their trains will be scrapped when HS2 opens.
The review team suggests that HS2 Ltd, the government owned company building the line, has not done enough to ensure that these destinations will continue to get a good service.
Nor has it ensured there are enough connections between HS2 and the existing rail network, backing up one of the frequent criticisms of the schemes from opponents. There are doubts, too, about whether the line will really benefit the North, as promised, or whether it will simply increase London’s dominance of the country’s economy.
Lord Berkeley, the deputy chairman of the review team, is deeply critical of the scheme. In a furious letter to the chairman, Doug Oakervee, Berkeley points out that a staggering £750m has been spent on consultant fees so far despite the fact that there is still no ‘robust estimate of the cost’.
He says that an expert in costing schemes, Michael Byng, argues that a ‘bottom up’ estimate suggests that the cost is set to be at least £103bn. Berkeley suggests that if the line really does cost that much, then the ‘business case’, the calculation used by the Treasury to assess the scheme, is likely to be negative – in other words, the line is not worth building.
Only last week, in a speech in Nottingham, Boris Johnson stressed that he thought the scheme was ‘incredibly expensive’. But he has not yet said he will cancel it.
Remember, though, that this is election time, and nothing is as it seems. It is, of course, still possible for the government elected on December 12th, whether it is Conservative, Labour or a coalition, to scrap the whole plan despite the recommendations of the review.
That is because the crucial ‘notice to proceed’, the legal technicality required to give it the go ahead, has not been issued.
If Lord Berkeley is right, and costs continue to soar and anger mounts as woods and houses are destroyed to make way for the line, a new government might just decide to wash its hands of an increasingly unpopular project.
It might not be a popular decision in the North – but it might just be the one that has to be made.