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Lessons to be learnt from extreme curtailment of High Speed 2 (HS2)

Updated: Mar 23

By Peter Fagan, AusHR member

I read with interest an opinion piece in The Guardian by Simon Jenkins (Guardian columnist, author and BBC broadcaster):

 

Every week brings a fresh HS2 scandal. It’s time to shut it down – all of it – https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/nov/16/hs2-scandal-white-paper-rishi-sunak

 


The article is a response to the British Government report (or white paper) NETWORK NORTH: TRANSFORMING BRITISH TRANSPORT (Presented to Parliament by the Secretary of State for Transport by Command of His Majesty October 2023) – https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/65290f86697260000dccf78b/network-north-transforming-british-transport-print-version.pdf

 

The article is highly critical of and negative about the High Speed 2 (HS2) rail project – as are the white paper and many of the 300 comments responding to Jenkins' article that The Guardian has published.[i]

 

Perhaps this negativity is not what those with an interest in High Speed Rail want to hear and read. However the article and the comments responding to it, and the white paper itself, are informative and well worth reading by anyone who sees value in a Lessons Learnt exercise.


Key points from the ~ 118 comments on Jenkins' article:


Why build it ?

 

 Photo credit: Darren Staples/Bloomberg


 There is no public consensus on WHY HS2 was being built. Comments offer these explanations:

 

  • "the original speed justification soon changed to one of capacity"

  • the existing West Coast Main Line (WCML) was congested with trains of different speeds and stopping patterns - passenger expresses, freight trains and local passenger trains

  • the congested line meant the number of non-local passenger services was restricted and they were consequently often overcrowded

  • to provide fast services to enable workers to commute from one major centre to another (e.g Birmingham to London, Manchester to Birmingham)

  • "The notion that HS2 was about speed has always been erroneous. Look at capacity issues of having slow and fast on the same lines."

  • "Andrew Marr asked David Cameron (then Prime Minister) what was the need for or purpose of HS2 (then still just an idea). Cameron answered 'It's to help us win the global race'."


WHO would it really benefit?

 

"It was never about ‘leveling up’ and benefiting the north. If it had been, the building would have started in the north and headed south. It was always a boondoggle to benefit London."

 

Was true high speed necessary ?

 

"The project was chasing the bravado of an inflated speed. However the distance it was going to run on made the high speeds unnecessary. A standard rail would have been sufficient."

 

"The cost problems with HS2 were the politicians’ ego over-specification of mega high speed to compare with Europe when just significantly faster than current lines would have done . . ."

 

What other issues plagued the project ?

 

  • poor project governance

  • construction company greed and wastefulness

 

Some thoughts


Some thoughts I have had in response to reading the article, comments and white paper:

 

Start from BOTH ends


Where possible and practical, do not build a linear project from one end only; start it from BOTH ends:

 

  • so communities at both ends are invested in construction jobs and the prospect of future operational benefits

  •  so even if completion is delayed, operational benefits can be experienced for some distance from both ends.

 

For example if an upgrade of the current substandard Sydney – Canberra regional rail was started, but halted with work complete Sydney – Mittagong and Canberra – Goulburn, some benefit would be had at either end of the project.

 

Do not starve other projects

 

There is a need to avoid an expensive HSR project starving other parts of the rail network of construction, operation and maintenance funds. This quote from the white paper itself is salient:

 

"So the facts have changed. Costs have risen, delivery dates have been delayed, and Covid has changed how we travel. Meanwhile investment in the transport that people in the North and Midlands want, need and use, from buses to potholes, has been crowded out by HS2. Therefore in its current scope and scale, HS2 is part of the problem and not the solution: a single, outsized investment at the expense of hundreds of others."

 

The HS2 death spiral

 

HS2 was hugely expensive. As the cost spiralled out of control, parts of it were cut. As each part was cut, the project made less and less sense.

 

"Once bits started being lopped off – the HS1 link, the link with the Liverpool line, the link with HS3 across the north [ the link to Leeds and Bradford, the extension to Manchester ] – then it became daft."

 

"The thing is, the less of it that is built, the more pointless it becomes. Who needs a railway from Birmingham to not really central London when the existing one takes little over an hour anyway?"

 

How to avoid a death spiral:

 

Start with a small vision, not a grand network plan. If it succeeds, plan and build the next bit. This is actually how Japanese Shinkansen and French TGV were built and continue to be incrementally expanded.

 

Avoid over-engineering:

 

"HS2 has been engineered to have trains running >200mph. This requires more engineering in everything – track, tunnels, curves, distance apart etc. etc. HS1 goes up to about 180 max (I think) and needs basically a lot less digging and yes, engineering. HS1 standards have been used across most of Europe and it is fast enough. Would have saved loads therefore if we hadn’t over engineered this project."

 

"The cost problems with HS2 were . . . the amount of expensive and unnecessary civil engineering - tunnels, cuttings etc / required by Home Counties NIMBYs to hide the railway from their view."

 

"The big costs are due to the tunnelling and this is caused by NIMBY anxiety."


 Photo credit: HS2


From the white paper itself:

 

29. But as with the project overall, we will be getting a grip of plans for Euston station itself. We have spent four years on two unaffordable designs, with a gold-plated and over-specified station. That will change.

 

30. We are going to strip back the project and deliver a station that works, and that can be open and running trains as soon as possible, and which has the leadership in place to deliver maximum value to the taxpayer.

 

A clarification – what remains of HS2 ?

 

There is a perception that HS2 has been cancelled altogether. According to the white paper that is not so:

 

20. We need to change our approach if we are to change the country. So we will take the hard decisions that allow us to prioritise our resources to benefit lives and livelihoods across the UK. That does not mean that we are walking away from HS2. It still has a part to play. But we will recast HS2 to ensure it forms part of a blend of projects that will unlock growth and prosperity throughout our nation, rather than putting all of our eggs in one basket. We will complete Phase 1 of the project between Birmingham and London where construction has begun. But we will not proceed with Phases 2a, 2b and HS2 East. And we will use the money that saves to address a range of more pressing transport priorities elsewhere.

 

23. So we will complete Phase 1 of HS2 between London and the West Midlands as planned. There will be two branches: one to central Birmingham; and one to Handsacre, near Lichfield, meaning passengers will be able to travel on HS2 trains through to Manchester, Liverpool and Scotland, joining the West Coast Main Line for the rest of their journeys.

 

24. This will cut journey times from Birmingham to central London by half an hour, from around 80 minutes to 49 minutes. It will also reduce the journey time between London and Manchester by nearly half an hour (down to 100 minutes), facilitated through an upgrade of Handsacre Junction which will allow more trains to reach key destinations north of Birmingham. It will have a transformative effect on rail capacity: nearly doubling capacity up to 250,000 seats per day across the primary long-distance operator on the West Coast Main Line and Phase 1 – triple that of the operator’s current estimated average daily demand.

 

28. As we have always planned, this new line will finish its journey at Euston station. This will ensure that we can deliver a link into the heart of our capital, with its connections to locations across London.

 

However, beyond Central Birmingham and Handsacre, HS2 is terminal:

 

36 . . . Phase 2a safeguarding [ UK terminology for corridor protection ] will be formally lifted in weeks and Phase 2b safeguarding will be amended by summer next year [2024], to allow for any safeguarding needed for Northern Powerhouse Rail. The land acquisition programme on Phase 2a will be halted immediately and HS2 will not be accepting new applications under the existing schemes from property owners in the areas where safeguarding is going to be lifted. Any property that is no longer required for HS2 will be sold and a programme is being developed to do this.

 

Conclusion


I encourage all those with an interest in High Speed Rail to read and discuss Jenkins' article, the comments on it and the white paper. We must strive to guard against a project failure as epic as this from being a potential outcome in Australia.

 

Background reading


[i] For detailed background on HS2, see the following Wikipedia articles:

 

 

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