HS2 was supposed to be desperately needed to help upgrade the UK rail network. Instead, after billions of pounds spent, the project has been all but scrapped, leaving just a short run of new rail between Birmingham and the outskirts of London. Alec Haglund, IF Researcher, explains why scrapping HS2 symbolises a lack of long-term thinking and investment in the UK.
Not just about journey times
Newspaper articles tend to focus on how HS2 would reduce travel times between key cities, with London to Birmingham reduced by 24 minutes, and London to Manchester by 14 minutes. However, shorter journey times were not the key reasons why the doomed project would have improved rail travel in the UK.
Following Rishi Sunak’s recent announcement, HS2 will no longer reach the North or the Midlands, nor will it reach central London. Instead, this high-speed rail will become a short run between the outskirts of London and Birmingham. The many benefits the original project promised will now not be realised. Short-term thinking has triumphed over a longer-term investment in transport for younger and future generations.
The multiple benefits of the original HS2 plan
Many rail corridors in the UK are already at full capacity resulting in delays and the cancellation of services. The lack of capacity not only affects intercity trains but also impacts local and commuter services which often share the same tracks. Without HS2 and its northern legs, as major population centres grow, the nation faces limited services, more delays, and rising fares.
HS2 was supposed to increase capacity across the UK rail network. This meant that both local and intercity train service levels and reliability could improve along with increased frequency, shorter travel-times, better service patterns and less delays. Additionally, the increased capacity would allow for more freight trains, thus taking polluting trucks off the roads and thereby helping to reduce emissions and improve air quality.
The economic benefits of better connecting Britain’s cities would have been immense, with northern labour markets better integrated into the rest of the economy, and knowledge, innovation and job opportunities more evenly distributed across the country.
The problem of NIMBYism
A major reason for the cancellation of the project was based on cost. One key reason why the project costs rose exponentially is due to NIMBYism. For example, tens of kilometres of railway had to be unnecessarily tunnelled – significantly increasing the project bill – due to lobbying by local residents and politicians. In another example, ventilation shafts were expected to be camouflaged to resemble barns in order to calm down local opposition!
Spending big on consultants and the lack of domestic know-how
An even larger problem has been the lack of domestic rail engineering expertise and the willingness of project managers to spend hundreds of millions of pounds on outside consultants and other “cost-cutting advisors”. Some have argued that the UK has been particularly vulnerable to the infantilisation of governance which the consulting industry relies upon, as large parts of what should be the work of the government is now outsourced to consultants.
Europe does it differently
As much as 30% of the costs of major projects in the UK go towards “soft-costs”, such as consultants, advice and estimations. Meanwhile, our European counterparts only spend on average 12% on soft-costs, leaving more for hard-costs such as material and building costs. Unlike France, Italy or Germany, the UK does not have a publicly owned rail network that has gradually built up internal expertise on how to construct and manage large-scale transport projects.
Furthermore, spending on consultants and advisors also leads to more bureaucracy, more management and further delays. Since delays cost money, it is unsurprising that both France and Spain can build high-speed rail for almost one tenth of the price of HS2.
Futureproofing is generally thought of as an integral part of making long-term plans. When large transport infrastructure projects are undertaken, it is vital to take into consideration how future generations may need to expand the infrastructure. For example, this may mean building extra space in a new underground train station for future platforms. It is also much cheaper and more efficient to do so when a tunnel boring machine is already beneath the ground.
The government is currently doing the exact opposite by not planning with future generations in mind. Among the most short-sighted decision-making is the selling-off of land that had been acquired for the right of way of HS2. Should a future government wish to pick up the original project, it would have to reacquire much of the land again at a significant cost.
We need to expand and improve the national rail network in order to decarbonise our economy and transport network. With the axing of the northern part of the HS2, the project’s potential to incentivise a modal shift from aviation to rail has been drastically reduced. IF has called for banning domestic aviation when rail travel between city-centre to city-centre would only take 30 minutes longer. If HS2 was implemented in full, such a modal shift would be much more achievable, protecting younger and future generations from subsequent emissions and climate change associated with fossil fuel travel.
There have of course been legitimate concerns about the biodiversity loss resulting from the construction of HS2. However, the scrapping of the project will not benefit the environment since much of the environmental damage has already been done. In fact, biodiversity loss might actually worsen if the extensive mitigation works agreed as part of the project are not completed.
Can we still plan for the long-term?
To many, the failures of HS2 and the scrapping of the project signal that UK leaders are simply unable to plan for the future and undertake large-scale infrastructure projects. While France, Italy and Spain build high-speed rail across the continent at staggering speeds, the UK is losing out on a European level as well as more widely. For example, China had zero high-speed rail in 2008 yet boasted 42,000 kilometres of track by the end of 2022, equivalent to two-thirds of all high-speed rail in the world.
One reason why countries such as Spain are better at building large-scale transport infrastructure may be simply because they continue to build it. For each kilometre and for each segment, lessons are learnt, and best practice is taken into account for the next section. This means that costs, risks and delays can be reduced at each stage.
Invest in the future
It is vital that the UK does not give up on large-scale infrastructure projects that will benefit future generations even if the costs today might seem high. An expansion and modernisation of the national rail network is urgently required, and this must include high-speed rail even if upfront costs appear high, given our need to decarbonise travel. Indeed, HS1 from St Pancras to the Channel Tunnel was three times over budget but today it is deemed an economic success. The Elizabeth Line is another example of opposition based on cost being ignored with returns on investment coming in much sooner than doom-mongers predicted.
It is no wonder that many young people in the UK look at the high-speed rail networks on the continent with envy and wonder why we can’t build good public transport infrastructure. It is time that policy-makers better consider the needs of future generations, plan with a long-term mindset, and invest in the public transport infrastructure of the future.
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