Ever since it was announced in 2010, HS2 has been beset with problems and controversy. These all stem from the fact that it is a solution looking for a problem, that there was never an assessment of what UK transport infrastructure needed, it was just “HS2, we’ve got to have it, now let’s do it”. As a result, the arguments to justify it were bolted on afterward, hence why none of them fit.
We were first told it was a green project, but when you look at the carbon output due to the speeds involved, you see it quite clearly isn’t, most notably demonstrated by the fact the Green Party oppose HS2. It was then that it had a great business case, but this relies on the absolute fact that no-one ever, ever works on trains. No, you don’t, the Department for Transport say so. From that assumption, you can then put a cash value on the time saved by going faster, ignoring the longer onward journeys as many destinations won’t be at existing stations, and hey presto, billions of pounds of economic benefits.
We’ve then had the capacity argument, because everyone who has been on a train has been on a busy standing room only train. But with London Euston being the second quietest terminus in the capital, after of course the one for HS1 at St Pancras, HS2 delivers capacity where it is needed the least. Yes, we have seen record rail growth, but that is not people doing long distance journeys, it’s people travelling around ten miles to get to work.
Now of course we are told that HS2 will ‘rebalance the economy’, effectively being a magic wand to heal the North- South divide. Of course this ignores the fact that wherever high speed railways have been built elsewhere in the world, they have dragged more economic activity to the capital, and in many cases regional unemployment has gone up against national averages. If your aim were to improve the prosperity of the North, you would invest there, the very last thing you would do is build a high speed railway line to London.
The other lesson to be learned from across the world is that the grossly-inflated passenger forecast used to demonstrate the need for high speed rail networks never materialise, meaning HS2 is likely to need a massive ongoing subsidy. Only two high speed rail lines (not networks, just lines) in the entire world actually make a profit.
Whilst HS2 was originally proposed as an alternative to a third runway at Heathrow, the connection to which, like the connection to HS1 and the channel tunnel, has been scrapped, now it seems like it is for no other reason than to extend the London commuter belt. Whilst parts of the project have been cut, the estimated cost has risen from £32.7bn, to £42.6bn, to £50.1bn, to £55.7bn.
Over the years, HS2 has garnered wide spread criticism, maybe most notably from the Government’s own watchdog, the Major Projects Authority (Infrastructure and Projects Authority since January). They first rated HS2 as ‘amber-red’ in November 2011, which means:
“Successful delivery of the project is in doubt, with major risks or issues apparent in a number of key areas. Urgent action is needed to ensure these are addressed, and whether resolution is feasible.”
The IPA annual report released in July puts HS2 still at ‘amber-red’, suggesting that the ‘urgent action’ has never happened, and with a project having ‘major risks’ for five years, you really have to question the management of the project. Well, management clearly have an attitude of sticking their fingers in their ears to try and drown out the alarm bells, best demonstrated by a recent revelation contained in a report from the National Audit Office.
HS2 Ltd had an internal test to pass, ‘Review Point 1’, before they would be allowed to start tendering for construction contracts. The NAO was unambiguous, on costs and schedules, they failed, but the DfT decided to let them tender anyway. The NAO maybe gave a clue as to why they’d failed on costs, there was a £9bn over-run on the £56bn cost estimate. But as if by magic, after six years of working up the figures, within just six months they managed to identify £9bn worth of cost savings to wipe that out. HS2 Ltd however, are only confident at this point they can deliver £2bn of that, so surely the cost now stands at £63bn?
Now I’m not in project management, but I would suspect that is not exactly normal practice, and must cast some doubt on, well, everything HS2 Ltd say. Quite simply, HS2 has ‘disaster’ written all over it, it won’t fulfil its promises and the costs will just keep going up. The new Government must review it as a matter of urgency, or we’ll all be paying the price.