HS2: The time for simple binary decision-making is past- it needs an independent review

Unless the Chancellor has something up his sleeve for next Wednesday’s Budget, it looks as the Government is “deferring” a lot of big spending on HS2 for at least a couple more years.

To judge from the Transport Secretary’s statement, some big decisions have also been deferred, presumably until after the next general election.

This would, therefore, seem an opportune moment to ask once again whether HS2 is (a) the best and most cost-effective way of securing more capacity throughout our rail network, or, (b) a costly mutilated relic of a dream from a different age?

Or, just possibly, something else?

Listening to the racket on social media about the high-speed rail project, you’d think the choice is a binary one: build all of it or scrap all of it. But that’s binary decisions for you.

Football managers sometimes say: “There can only be one winner in a cup final” – only for their teams to drag out a goal-less draw and 30 minutes of weary extra-time. Then it’s the meaningless ritual of penalties.

Referenda are a bit similar. Even those supposed to have simple, binary outcomes like EU membership or Scottish independence turn out, on examination, to be compacting a vast range of important issues. They seldom have simple outcomes.

Social media also lead us towards binary outcomes, even when better ones are available. The endless Twitter spat over HS2 is a case in point.

Very aggressive HS2 supporters plainly believe insults, distortions and deliberate twisting of tweets they disagree with are the way to get the line built. Even some connected with the project seem happy with this.

HS2 opponents, meanwhile, tend to include a sprinkling of anti-rail people. Most of the rest are (not unreasonably) trying to protect their local environment from what has so far hardly covered itself in glory in that direction. But even they seldom address our urgent need for rail investment.

So, if you listen to social media, the choice is between building it exactly as it was in 2012 (or maybe 2021 or even 2023) or scrapping it completely. Only one winner etc..

But for some time now, I’ve strongly felt it’s time to dial down the rhetoric and take a proper look at HS2.

The Government has already borrowed billions for land acquisition and clearance between London and Crewe and for civil engineering on the southern section. It would still be much cheaper to scrap it than to open any of it, but a great swathe of destruction has been created.

Yes, that swathe is wider than need be in places because it was sold to gullible politicians on the basis of 350mph (or even 400mph!) trains. But those very high speeds precluded the once promised use of the trackbed of the old Great Central line between Aylesbury and Brackley. Most of that has been left to rest in peace, while HS2’s wide new corridor is carved alongside.

The scheme prepared in the 2000s was poorly integrated with the existing network and even managed to by-pass some major population centres like Nottingham and Derby. (One figure connected with the project recently contended these are not major cities and lack proper central business districts.; this may surprise those who live there.)

The two cities were supposed to have been “served” by a station at Toton, which would have served neither. Toton station was buried (at least temporarily, mustn’t upset house builders) in 2021 when Phase 2b(east) was scrapped north of East Midlands Parkway. Then the Government earmarked £100 million, not for building anything, but just for designing an alternative. Which should at least keep the consultants quiet for a while.

And yes, that was a hundred million pounds.

So, where do we go from here? The DfT and HS2’s “Project Silverlight” was trying to cut the soaring (£40bn+) cost of Phase 1 from London to Birmingham. “Project Blue Diamond” meanwhile has been looking at ways to cut the cost of the whole project.

Despite Mark Harper’s statement, a range of cuts and further delays is still out there. Eventually, this could involve cutting out the whole Birmingham-East Midlands section, the Handsacre Link and maybe even Crewe-Manchester, Crewe-Birmingham and Old Oak Common-Euston. All this is, needless to say, taking place behind closed doors.

Given that tens of billions have already been spent or contractually committed, huge areas of land cleared and extensive civils work done on the southern section, it would seem sensible to make at least some rail use of it. HS2’s argument that the West Coast Main Line is short of capacity is a sound one, though whether Phase 1 is the best use of £40bn+ to relieve it between London and Birmingham is a serious question.

Supporters will argue that contracts now tie them into spending the billions involved. This is only true up to a point. Yes, there are huge penalties if contracts are terminated, so the sensible thing is to pay smaller penalties and redirect the work. No contractor in their right mind would demand every last penny; they might want to be on future tender lists.

So surely the time is ripe for a review of the whole project – an independent review that is, free from people who’ve been involved in the current scheme. Many are eminent professionals, but HS2 fantasies appear to have warped several people’s judgement.

The review must look at the whole HS2 project:-

  • what should be scrapped;
  • what alternative investments would be more beneficial;
  • what could be adapted to something more relevant to the future;
  • whether any would be worth completing in its present form.

With the benefit of hindsight of course, it should never have been designed as a single scheme from London to Manchester and Leeds (with through running well beyond). It encouraged those who designed it to downgrade the rest of the network, while seeing HS2 as something separate. That might have appealed to politicians at the time, but never made much sense.

Now the country must cope with a weakening economy, enormous debts and multiple threats, including that of climate change which will be biting hard by the time any, let alone all, of HS2 could be running.

Those who contend HS2 is still the best solution, despite the many changes, need to have a very long think. Yes, we desperately need more rail capacity (all over the network, not just in a narrow N-S corridor). And yes, that could involve new construction, possibly even some high-speed lines.

What we don’t need is any more closed-door Whitehall chats with HS2 Ltd. We need an open, honest, multi-disciplinary and above all independent review.

Jon Reeds