I do not want to get into a ding dong over HS2 with my esteemed editor Nigel Harris and other supporters of the scheme such as Jim Steer, who wrote a letter critical of parts of my column on the project two issues ago. Nigel and I have disagreed about HS2 since its inception but as an editor he had recognised the value of having differing views in this magazine over issues such as the project and, indeed, matters such as rail privatisation, and I am enormously appreciative of this.
However, the problems over HS2 are not going away and one of the worst aspects of this saga is the lack of transparency over its costs and its direction. Its only salvation lies in ensuring there is a proper and thorough debate about what is happening and about the future of the project, and its supporters need to join with me in ensuring that this happens.
My long established scepticism over HS2 does not mean that, as Jim Steer put it, I feel ‘gleeful dismay’ at the project’s troubles. Yes I am angry that a part of London near where I live looks like it has enjoyed the attentions of the Luftwaffe and the IRA combined but it is not my consistent opposition to the scheme that is motivating me in writing about HS2.
Rather, it is the fact that this is a crisis for the industry, as well as the project, and there is a failure by politicians of all hues to face up to it. Simply blundering on, as Nigel rightly points out in his editorial, is not an option. Nigel is spot on to argue that cutting off various sections of the scheme means a great loss of benefits for far smaller savings, though I might take issue with his 20 – 80 ratio. If all we are going to get is a line between Old Oak Common and Birmingham, which will charge passengers premium prices as does HS1, then there have to be questions asked about its purpose.
I do however want to pick Nigel and Jim up on one point which is at the heart of the debate. Nigel quoted John Armitt who said ‘Get it built as quickly as possible’. But this is just failing to recognise the realpolitik of the situation. We are not living in a world of magic money trees. There are cuts everywhere, not least in the budget for the railways. While before the pandemic it might have been possible to argue that the government should just ignore the critics and plough on regardless, now this is simply politically and practically impossible.
And here I take issue with Jim Steer who reiterates the point he has long made in his letter that the budget for the existing railway is separate from that for HS2. On this, it was instructive listening to Mark Harper give evidence to the Transport Select Committee on HS2. Well, ‘instructive’ may be the wrong word – perhaps depressing would be a better one.
Harper made clear that the budgets of various aspects of transport, including HS2, overlap when he explained why parts of the project had been paused: ‘Because HS2 is a very big infrastructure project in construction, I was very clear that that project needed to absorb those inflation pressures—at least some colleagues will be pleased to hear that— and we were not going to absorb those pressures and cause difficulties in other areas of transport spending’. In other words, he has one pot of money which includes HS2 and decisions are interconnected.
Harper was given a torrid time, not least by his own Parliamentary colleague, Greg Smith and demonstrated a level of ignorance about the project that was quite remarkable. Asked if he knew what percentage of the first phase had been completed, he simply replied he did not know. Worse, he was unable to explain what metrics were actually used to assess how far the scheme had progressed. An inside source later told me Harper should have known it was around a third, but the very fact that the man supposedly who is the client of this scheme is paying so little attention to it demonstrates precisely why the project is so totally out of control.
If you want more evidence of the total lack of any public accountability, I recommend that Nigel, Jim, and other friends of HS2 take a few moments and Google ‘HS2 board minutes’ (don’t go via the website which leads you as far as possible away from finding the board minutes). Take a moment to run through them. You will find there are more black patches than on a pirate ship, each one redacting any – yes any – relevant information. It would be funny if it were not so tragic. The latest minutes for example, on the subject of cost pressures, say ‘Management summarised then next steps…redacted, redacted, and redacted’ about which the board noted ‘redacted’. And so on. Quite simply the public is not allowed to know anything about how its money is being spent and what is being done to reduce costs.
It is a cynical exercise in operating behind closed doors while claiming to support open government. This is the project spending more taxpayers’ money – £120m per week, and according to another inside source, with the total cost rising by £100m every month as a result of inflation. Even Harper at the hearing admitted that it was time to update the figures for the cost which currently are given at 2019 prices – it won’t make happy reading.
Look guys, this has nothing to do with my views on HS2. What I am saying is clear and simple. If you really believe this project should continue and that we should spend perhaps £100bn on it – a figure that has not been challenged – then you have to recognise that there is a crisis and an existential threat. If like me you have been taking soundings around the industry and from government, you will know that ministers are tearing their hair out over this and privately senior managers at Network Rail are aghast at the cost overruns and the loss of any budget for rail enhancements.
You have to be looking at ways of cutting the spend – notably, would not reducing the speed below the design build of 360 kph make sense? Could not some of the expensive sections with tunnels and embankments consequently be redesigned? Should there not be a new management team? And so on.
And there is another issue that they should join in with me. HS2 has long had all the PR skills of a deaf hippopotamus, failing to respond in any meaningful way to fundamental questions but now it is exhibiting a level of secrecy that is nothing short of scandalous. They need to be more accountable and to admit the extent of their problems, and share with the public the issues at play. Silence from those who care about the industry is not helping the cause.
There are very few true believers in the project across the railway sector. The rail managers I meet either refuse to discuss HS2 or acknowledge privately that radical action is needed. Very few – please do come out of the woodwork in the Letters page – support the full programme at the current cost. Frankly, the more I delve into the details of what is happening, the more I am convinced that the option of turning the HS2 tunnels into mushroom farms and write off the whole thing is being realistically considered.
This project is causing untold damage to the cause of the railway. Shockingly, Bernadette Kelly, the permanent secretary who was with Harper at the hearing, refused to commit to making a full new assessment of the benefit cost ratio of the scheme. She said: ‘I hesitate to commit to a full BCR review because the task of working through exactly what some of the rephasing and delays mean for the process is quite a detailed and complex one already’. In other words, we have no idea what the financial implications of the delay will be. It is an admission that spending on the project is totally out of control.
Supporters of the scheme must get behind the campaign for more transparency. Not only should the board minutes provide far more detailed information and they should not hide behind the deeply dishonest ‘commercially confidential’ argument. We need a reassessment of the business case, the environmental case, the economic case, the demand case and so on to justify continuing with the project in its present form. That is the least we can expect.
More reports from the NGAD front line.
The Avanti website is still a bed of misinformation. Trying to book a ticket for the weekend ahead from Euston to Stoke, it tells me that the ‘tickets are sold out’. This is misleading and borders on lying. What it means is that advanced tickets have sold out but it does not say that the unreserved carriages will still be available or that one can simply buy an off peak ticket and chance it. This is part of a wider trend to try to turn the railway into a pre-booking service only which serves the interests of the rail companies but not of the public.
And complaints about connections continue to pour into my NGAD help line. Andrew wrote to tell me of a typical experience. He was at Derby waiting for a friend who was arriving on a service from Tutbury & Hatton, and they were both intending to take a connection to Matlock. She texted him that her train was running a few minutes late and Andrew informed the conductor of the Matlock service that he was waiting for someone on the late running service which was due on an adjoining platform. There would still have been five minutes to change to the 10 33 but her service then stopped outside the station, and yes, you’ve guessed it, despite the train actually being in view, the Matlock service left precisely on time, and hers arrived a minute later. The following 11 33 was then very overcrowded as many others had been on the local train to connect with the Matlock service. As Andrew wailed, ‘Did no one at East Midlands Trains, which ran both services, think to delay one of their own trains for just two minutes?’ Not in the NGAD railway.
But a bouquet for the lady at the East Midlands ticket office at St Pancras who sold me a couple of tickets with a smile and a chat, very efficiently and quickly, ensuring I had the best deal. There are lots of good people still working for the railway, but they should be supported by management and rewarded accordingly