Labour’s dilemma on HS2

A visit to a couple of the huge HS2 sites scattered along the route between London and Birmingham will debunk the idea that this scheme can be stopped in its tracks. Some £20bn has already been spent or committed and the current rate is around £140m per week, or £7bn per year. Contracts have been signed, commitments made and calling a halt would leave a disparate collection of structures that would bemuse any curious passing aliens: ‘what were these strange humans trying to do with this massive viaduct over the Colne Valley and a ten mile long tunnel under a few small hills?’

These are massive structures which are mostly completed but would serve no purpose except possibly as the world’s biggest mushroom factory and its most expensive tourist walkway. There are plenty more embankments, bridges, and tunnels. Indeed this 140 mile long first section includes 32 miles of tunnel and nine miles of embankment, most of which have been started if not completed. The residents of the Chilterns, who have not been won over to the project despite millions being spent on mitigating measures such as extra sections of tunnel, restrictions on the use of lorries and  support for community schemes, will have suffered a decade or more of disruption for nothing.

So the project has to continue but it has become increasingly diminished, a shadow of its former ambitious self. Early casualties were the connection to Heathrow and the link to HS1 and therefore Europe via the Channel Tunnel, but more recently the eastern section to Leeds has been abandoned with the line now petering out somewhere in the East Midlands as has the Golborne Link, which would have allowed Manchester trains to continue northwards on the West Coast Main Line.

Now there is talk of what would be the most dramatic cut, the abandonment of any construction north of Birmingham, leaving HS2 as a mere self standing line linking, as one wag put it disparagingly, Acton to Aston as only the section that connects Old Oak Common, some five miles west of Euston, and Birmingham Curzon Street, a mile from New Street station would be completed.

Perhaps the link northwards from Birmingham might survive but such a truncated line would be the worst of all worlds. It will have a negative benefit to cost ratio – in other words it will cost more than it will ever benefit the economy – and will offer a very limited number of journeys between the capital and Birmingham that already have two good railway connections.

Moreover, the politics would be disastrous. Andy Burnham, the mayor of Manchester, has already been highly critical, arguing that ‘the southern half of England gets a modern rail system and the North [is] left with Victorian infrastructure’.  As Burnham points out, this hardly accords with the levelling up agenda.

However, while Labour politicians may gloat about Tory discomfort on the problems with HS2, they may soon find themselves having to deal with them. And there is no easy solution. Cutting back phase 2 through to Crewe and eventually Manchester will cost an estimated £34bn, money which otherwise could spent on a huge range of schemes that fit far better into a Labour agenda, whether it is simply improving the bus network or patching up school buildings to large projects involving new hospitals and other much needed infrastructure.

Labour has promised in the past that it will build HS2 in full, though it has never made clear precisely what this means. Does this mean that whatever the cost, the scheme will be completed? Is this a commitment to build the Golbourne curve, and the complete eastern section to Leeds? If so, it is unclear where the money will come from. HS2 has no clear budget and currently all its costs are quoted in 2019 prices, which means that the numbers will be greatly increased when the money is actually allocated.

Megaprojects like this have a momentum of their own. They are, like the apocryphal supertanker, very difficult to turn around. An incoming Labour government, therefore, cannot just sit on its hands and hope the whole thing will go away. But the party should be wary of making narrow political points that may end up costing a future government billions.



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