Gosh I wish I could love HS2. Life would be easier and I would not suffer the opprobrium I get from a section of rail enthusiasts.
This was brought home to me by a visit to the south portal of the 10 mile tunnel under the Chilterns. There is much to admire and some fantastic engineering, but also it did help me understand just why the project is so expensive and financially utterly out of control.
The first thing to observe, as we were taken from Denham station to the south portal site was the sheer scale of the enterprise. This was the headquarters of one of the four main contracts, run by a consortium called Align, a joint venture of three major construction companies, Bouygues, Volker Fitzpatrick and Sir Robert McAlpine and we were taken to a small information centre in the middle of a car that even the biggest out of town Tesco could not match – with room for more than a thousand cars – and it seemed to be overflowing. The site which encompasses an area the size of 80 football pitches – HS2 PR people love comparisons with double decker buses and soccer grounds – employs 2,500 people and is effectively a huge industrial site which produces the concrete rings for the tunnel and the decking sections for the viaduct, as well as a host of other material for the line. There was a small cycle rack, which was pleasingly full, but there is no doubt about how most of the staff get to work. There is the option, too, for those on tight shifts to rent a room in a portacabin for a bargain £22 per night, but demand not surprisingly well outstrips supply.
When asked about the size of the contract, the rather breezy response was ‘around £2bn’ with the proviso that, remarkably, this is the smallest of the four major contracts for the line between London and Birmingham, covering a 22 km section through the Chilterns. It includes two of the most impressive structures of the whole project, a two mile viaduct across the Colne Valley with its numerous lakes and marshes, and a ten mile tunnel under the hills.
There is, of course, little to see at the South portal as the two tunnel boring machines which are taking three years to cut through chalk are about three quarters of the way through – in other words more than seven miles away from the portal from which they were launched. The sheer logistics of getting the 17 strong crew along with the concrete rings which are being fitted to the machines and keeping the machines moving forward, at a maximum of 15 metres per day, are extremely complicated. Everything has to enter the tunnels in the right order and at the right time, and the spoil, which is mixed with water to facilitate its flow, is constantly being removed. It is taken to a former quarry within the site, where a new chalky grassland area is being created out of the three million tons carved out of the chalk.
Then a couple of miles further south, the viaduct across the Colne Valley is taking shape. The 1,000 deck segments are made on the portal site and then taken to the site where they are fitted on to the piers which are built using coffer dams using a kind of horizontal crane as a launching mechanism. Unlike the concrete rings for the tunnel, every one is slightly different as the viaduct is gently curved.
The viaduct is being fitted with a bespoke glass fence where it crosses over the lake in order to allow passengers a view given that this is a brief respite in either direction, coming out of London where the line is almost entirely underground or heading south after the Chilterns, from the gloom of lengthy tunnels. From the outside, the partly built viaduct has that over-engineered feel that is a hallmark of British construction methods. It is a heavy concrete structure that, however hard HS2 has tried, will blight this amazing landscape which, by the way is not natural. We discovered that the Colne Valley Park with its 70 lakes and 40 miles of waterway is not a natural but the result of the digging of numerous quarries in the area which then filled with water after they were abandoned in the middle of the last century.
There is, however, one group of people delighted with HS2, the members of the Denham Water Ski Club. As their former clubhouse was made inaccessible by the viaduct under which it nestles, they have been provided by HS2 with a wonderful new building on the other side of their lake and which has a viewing platform where visitors are taking to look at the viaduct, a facility they are all too happy to provide in return for their new home.
This is perhaps a clue as to why the scheme costs are so high. Throughout our visit, there were numerous mentions as to how the local community has been accommodated. Although ultimately this kind of provision is peanuts in a project that may cost as much as £100bn, the constant need to respond to local demands has, right from the outset, increased costs. Tunnelling routinely costs ten times more than building on the ground, and viaducts come at a high price too. Overall, there are to be 32 miles of tunnel and nine miles of viaduct along the 140 miles of the first phase of HS2, a remarkably high percentage for such a project, and one of the reasons why international comparisons can be misleading.
It is the need to balance the feelings of the local communities with the requirements of this megaproject as the principal cause of its high cost. This is the line constantly put out by by the HS2 people with whom I spoke but it is not altogether convincing. The problem is that right from the start HS2 gave into demands by local communities which were costly and at times unnecessary. Moreover, the specification for a 400 kph line, when most of the world does fine with 300 kph was both ludicrous and hugely costly. Then there, according to a senior insider in the project, the constant changes to specifications and to the scope of the project which again constantly add cost, as does the failure to absence of clear project management.
While much of the antipathy to the project has been generated by the increase in cost, there is another factor – the secrecy surrounding it. The scheme has no clear budget, counting is done bizarrely in 2019 terms rather than cash, there is no revised business case, the annual cost is only revealed through arcane parliamentary procedures (£7bn last year, a figure which is far higher than ministers have revealed, and the board minutes, as I have mentioned before, have more black patches than a pirate ship, which means that they are indecipherable for the public. When I asked about this, an HS2 press officer told me that this was because of GDPR – an absolute ludicrous claim that has no basis in law whatsoever.
More openness on the part of HS2 would, I accept, to more criticism and provide ammunition for its detractors. But it would also allow a proper debate about its cost, its viability, and the way forward.
In many ways, HS2 is a tragedy. The idea of a new railway line linking many of Britain’s major city is an attractive one but now thanks to this lack of cost discipline and antipathy in many parts of the press and public, we are left with a scheme that delivers few of the benefits that had originally been promised. It has become the £100bn Acton to Aston line, instead of a high speed network to match those of France, Spain and Italy. Therefore, unfortunately, despite being impressed with the engineering and the care with which the line is being built, I have not been won over. But at least I know what it looks like.
As you read this column, I will just have returned from a trip to Glasgow booked on a Lumo train via Edinburgh which was the only way to get back home to London on a Saturday strike day. The rail strikes are now so frequent that they are almost ignored by the media. It is at least a month since I have been on the radio talking about them, which frankly is something of a relief.
It seems that the government is happy about this, too. I met Mick Whelan, the head of ASLEF just before my trip up to Scotland and discovered that there has been no contact between unions and management or government since April. After a failed attempt by ministers to bounce the union into an agreement by announcing its terms in the media, which included all sorts of union red lines such as drivers having to pay for their own training, rather than over the negotiation table, there is an understandable reluctance on the part of the unions to engage in any discussions unless they are no pre-conditions. Whelan told me that of course he would turn up for any meeting provided they were genuine negotiations. I do recognise that the unions have to some extent played hardball but they would argue that they are simply seeking a reasonable pay rise after several years without one. However, hapless Harper and his Merriman are in no mood to talk, despite the fact that their strategy of trying to blame the workers for all the disruption has not won over the public. Rudderless and leaderless, as I put it in the last issue, is being too kind.