Rail 980: HS2 on the brink

Euston is currently a disaster zone – in every sense. I admit this is a subjective view as I live only a couple of miles away, cycle regularly along the Hampstead Road which bisects the HS2 site, and am therefore personally affected by the devastation that has been wrought on the area – for a project that will not see the light of day until 2040 at best. Nevertheless, it’s not just local people whose lives have been directly affected as the destruction of the Euston area is being used as a weapon with which to beat the wider HS2 scheme.

And rightly so, in my opinion. The National Audit Office report published on March 27 details an object lesson in how not to do things. Ascertaining what went wrong is not difficult since nothing has gone right. The Euston works are in fact three different projects ‘started at different times, led by different delivery bodies, and with different business cases’, according to the report: the HS2 Euston station, the existing Network Rail station, which is to be rebuilt, and the oversite development providing both housing and commercial premises, which is led by Lendlease, a private property company. The three were never considered together and therefore the interfaces between them have inevitably led to problems.

In order to facilitate these projects, a hotel, a former hospital, a very decent council estate, a pub, a lovely little oasis of a park and various other properties have been destroyed, leaving a huge empty site south of Camden Town, the likes of which London has not seen since the Blitz. Worse, we now learn that all work is paused – with most of the 650 strong workforce laid off – and will not be resumed for at least a couple of years and that there will be no HS2 station until after 2040. Whoever gave the go-ahead to destroy a large chunk of north London before there was a coherent plan to redevelop it deserves to lose their job. In just one instance of how money has been wasted, I have noticed a three- or four-storey block of prefabs that overlook the throat of the station; on the other side of the road, there was a superb council estate which was pulled down with an alacrity not seen elsewhere in this scheme. Destroying things is easier than building them, but could the estate not have been retained as office use while the design work was undertaken?

As the NAO report shows, spending has been out of control, with revelations that: ‘As at the end of December 2022, HS2 Ltd had spent £0.5 billion (in cash terms) on the HS2 Euston station, along with a further £1.5 billion on land purchases and preparatory works for the station and its approaches.’ The original budget of £2.6bn has been overshot by £2.2bn which is why work has been stalled

The original idea for an 11-platform station was scrapped in favour of one with 10 in order to save money, to the fury of HS2 enthusiasts at the time, who claimed this was a disaster for the scheme but it now looks very much as if this was the least of the problems.

What is most noticeable about the report is the way in which the Department for Transport has to approve anything that HS2 Ltd does, down to the smallest detail – and, moreover, is in turn hamstrung by the Treasury, which then has to take into account the views of politicians. Rather than leaving commercial decisions to HS2 ltd, the project is being micro managed from Whitehall.

With the delay, however, matters are only going to get worse. The most devastating paragraph in the NAO report reads thus: ‘The impact of deferring spending on the HS2 programme in the short term will be additional costs and could lead to an overall increase in spend in the long term. …. DfT and HS2 Ltd do not yet know what the impact of this pause will be on the overall schedule of the HS2 Euston station and when it will open.’ In other words, we know this is a bad decision, we have no idea when the project will be finished and we realise that this will result in extra costs – but needs must.


Those who support the scheme now have their work cut out. As the HS2 debacle slowly unfolded, I was minded, despite my long-term opposition to the scheme, to say that progress was such that it could not be stopped. Now, however, I am not so sure. Perhaps total abandonment is the only viable option. Otherwise, any spare money for the railways is going to be eaten up by this monster for the duration of, in my case, the rest of my lifetime. Certainly the decision as to whether I would ride on that first train out of Euston or not has been taken out of my hands. Schemes that are much more important for the levelling-up agenda, the health and wellbeing of the population and the need for the railways to stay relevant, will all be lost.

I remember a strong supporter of the scheme assuring me a decade ago that HS2 would not eat up money from other parts of the railway – that, in other words, its budget would be taken from a separate pot of money. He argued that the billion or so that would be spent each year would be lost in the overall government budget. Sadly, it’s £6bn (£120m per week) now and he has been proved wrong. We now have cutbacks in other investment schemes, such as Midland Mainline electrification, which are paused precisely because of the money going to HS2.


Not only will other rail investment dry up, but what is on offer now with regard to HS2 is a pale shadow of the original scheme, and at a far greater cost. To end up with a bastardised section of line running from Old Oak Common to Curzon Street, with no connections further north, is worse than nothing. Who is going to trek out to Old Oak Common to take a train to Curzon Street or vice versa, with neither having any easy connections to other destinations?


It is worth noting that the anonymous DfT insider who writes a column for Passenger Transport magazine suggested that the statement from Mark Harper about the delay was ‘a strategy for softening us up for even more dramatic cutbacks to come’. That is quite possibly accurate. What this devastating NAO report suggests is that the rest of the HS2 project is in equally dire straits, as pretty much anyone I have talked to inside it has said. Other parts of the country such as the East Midlands, Yorkshire and the Black Country have also suffered from the uncertainty and the changes.


It is now becoming increasingly difficult to justify spending tens of billions more for a line that, frankly, will have little purpose. Now that the section from Birmingham to Crewe has been paused, it is hard to see how further building work can ever be justified, especially as the business case has been undermined by the post- Covid changes in working practices. The West Coast Main Line is no longer full, and it is leisure travel that is the source of growth on the railways, which is much easier to accommodate during what were previously off-peak times.


My message to those who are still supporters of the project is this: you need to work out a way forward that is realistic but which retains a scheme that is useful, in a way that Old Oak Common to Birmingham is not. Perhaps that is an impossible demand, but it is the only hope of salvaging the project. It may be that as with Crossrail and the Jubilee Line Extension, a totally new project team is needed.


And to the transport strategists in the Labour party, I say: do not commit to a ‘full implementation’ of a scheme that is likely to hamper your ability to pay for anything else on the railways for a couple of decades to come. Focus on the North, on the Northern Powerhouse, on other railway improvements, and announce that HS2 should be reviewed as soon as you get into office. That will take courage but that’s what political leadership should be all about. Note that Euston may not be the only disaster area; it just happens to have come under more scrutiny than other sections of the line, notably Old Oak Common itself, the biggest new station to be built in decades and likely to cost at least £5bn. We await the next report into this tragic story with trepidation.


Derby county line


The announcement that Derby was to be the location of the headquarters of Great British Railways was a bit of a damp squib. The decision on the result of the competition launched with much fanfare by Mark Harper’s predecessor but two, Grant Shapps, was made known in a written statement to the Commons on March 21.

Given Shapps’s enthusiasm for the process which even included an indicative public vote – Derby did win but that was irrelevant – one might have expected the minister and a group of flunkies to make a big song and dance about it. Instead, on the day Harper stayed at home to issue a very banal statement about the decision and only turned up in Derby on the next day by which time the news agenda had moved on.

In fact, the problem was that there was no particular office block earmarked for the new organisation and, more important, nobody quite knows what GBR is going to do.  OK, confession time. I had several times in this column written off Great British Railways as having been killed off in the shuffling of chairs that constituted government last year, but it seems I was wrong. Well partly. The version of Great British Railways put forward by in the Williams Shapps report (should it be Williams Harper now, or simply Williams, or perhaps just The Plan?) seems indeed to have joined the dodo. There will be no all singing all dancing powerful agency that would sit atop the whole industry dictating everything from the purchase of rolling stock to the quantity of pens needed in Network Rail’s Milton Keynes HQ.

But we still have no idea as to what it will be. As I wrote in Rail  975, there has been a battle royal within the Department for Transport about the shape of the future GBR and there is now to be a renewed emphasis on the private sector role, though no one has explained how this will be delivered. Nor frankly, do we have any further details of the shape that GBR will take. Meanwhile a staggering staff of 235 people (full time equivalents in the jargon) are beavering away, presumably trying to work out those pen orders. Perhaps soon we will find out what they have been up to.

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