The waiting room: is there a future for HS2?

Britain’s journey to high-speed rail travel has been costly, complex and steeped in denial. Now HS2 has been put on hold. Should it be saved?

August 31, 2019
A costly folly—or a vital infrastructure project? The inside story of HS2. Photo: Prospect composite
A costly folly—or a vital infrastructure project? The inside story of HS2. Photo: Prospect composite

This summer, I took the 9.23am Virgin Trains peak service from London Euston to Birmingham New Street, calling at Coventry and Birmingham International. Euston is set off from a main, trafficky road behind a square of plane trees and a park obscured by long stretches of construction hoardings. I walked past large yellow signs: “No Pedestrian Access to Melton Street or Euston Road.” At the bottom of the hoarding was printed the reason: HS2.

HS2 is High Speed Two, Britain’s largest infrastructure project, the first new rail line to be built north of London in 150 years—a future-proof, super-fast railway that will run trains at up to 250mph to 25 stations including Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester. HS2 represents the most ambitious British rail project since the Victorian steam era, which allowed people to travel to work and play by linking cities with villages, creating suburbs and seaside resorts, and changing where and how we lived.

HS2 also promises national transformation. By reducing journey times—Birmingham in 45 minutes (almost half the 88 minutes it ended up taking me), Manchester in an hour and a quarter (now just over two hours), Leeds in an hour and 23 minutes (now two hours 15, if you’re lucky)—it aims to regenerate inner cities, create new towns at out-of-city station sites, provide jobs, free up capacity on the existing route to offer better short-hop and commuter services and, in the process, telescope the economic gap between north and south. The prospectus is full of promising words: connect, community, catalyst, choice, comfort. But in the decade since the project was launched, HS2 has come to stand more for controversy than communication.

Earlier this year, preliminary works began in earnest—access roads laid, sites cleared for spoil from tunnel excavations, electricity substations and gas mains moved, streams diverted, trees felled, buildings demolished, valleys surveyed, hills drilled, core samples analysed, lawsuits over compulsory purchase orders fought and settled, consultants consulted, tenders tendered, contractors contracted. But a curious doubt has settled over the whole project.

Even with diggers moving ground, the government never gave the final sign-off for Phase 1 of the project—the line to Birmingham—that would have formally swung it from planning-and-design stage to construction. The “Notice to Proceed” has been delayed three times, from December 2018, to this June when it was again postponed to the end of this year. In the waiting-room interim, all the old arguments over the efficacy of such an expensive project—the cost was advertised for years as £55.7bn, but might end up being double that—have re-emerged against a political background of increasing uncertainty. There are worries that cost-cutting could undermine the very nature of the project.

Boris Johnson has hemmed and hawed over HS2, eager to please both sides as ever, airing worries about costs while making positive snorting noises and keeping his options open. Back in August, his transport secretary, Grant Shapps, announced an “independent and rigorous” review of the project, which could even lead to the whole thing being scrapped. We know Johnson likes the idea of big ideas—an island airport in the Thames, the Garden Bridge in central London, bridges even to France and Ireland. With so much up in the air politically just now, is HS2 also doomed to become another unrealised dream?

The trainspotter

In 2008, Andrew Adonis, the New Labour policy maven, enthusiastic jack-in-the-box and self-confessed trainspotter, presented prime minister Gordon Brown with a list of big ideas, to refresh the policies of a long-term Labour incumbency. Among them was his dream of a high-speed rail network.

Adonis had watched high-speed trains transform Japan in the 1970s, France in the 1980s and Germany, Spain and Italy in the 1990s and thought that Britain, distracted by rail privatisation and the Railtrack fiasco, should catch up. During the post-war era, passenger numbers generally fell in the UK, but during the 2000s things changed: laptop working became possible, and the roads were clogged. While other modes of travel declined, many trains became packed. The choice, as Adonis saw it, was either to continue to patch up the creaking Victorian infrastructure or build a new rail system. This would not only be faster, but could also relieve over-crowding on existing main lines, allowing better local and commuter services, and possibly even more freight capacity. Vehicles would be taken off roads. More importantly, high-speed rail would link Britain’s northern cities to the booming London economy. It was a great cymbal clash of regeneration, investment and bridging the north-south divide.

“To my mind, the whole thing was a no-brainer,” Adonis told me this summer. The prime minister made positive noises; Adonis asked to be transport minister in order to begin planning. “Gordon said, ‘Goodness, no one has ever said that to me before!’” He got that job, then a few months later, and unusually for an unelected peer, he was promoted to the cabinet and made secretary of state for transport.

Adonis only held the post for 11 months before the coalition government took power in 2010. In that time he published a White Paper and established HS2 Ltd, a government-funded quango, to oversee the project. When he showed the reliably downbeat chancellor Alistair Darling the plans, “he told me that I could have my toy, but it didn’t matter because he’d kill it after the election. And then he said to me: ‘Whoever is in this job will kill it,’ and laughed.” The treasury, Adonis told me, “never wants big infrastructure projects.”

Serendipitously, however, HS2 suited the incoming David Cameron, who had paraded his “vote blue, go green” credentials by coming out against a third runway at Heathrow, and signalling that a high-speed rail link connecting airports and cities might be a better alternative to an expanded Heathrow. The new transport secretary, Philip Hammond, kept HS2 on the books, even as the transport budget was austerity-cut. Ironically, in due time, a third runway at Heathrow was given the go-ahead, and the original plan for HS2 reaching the airport was dropped. Even though this rationale disappeared, big projects build their own momentum.

Lord Berkeley, who now sits as a Labour life peer, is an engineer who worked on Eurotunnel—and one of HS2’s most forensic critics. He told me, “my gut feeling is that between the beginning and two or three years ago—a period of about six years—ministers took very little notice of HS2, just let them get on with it. Nobody really questioned it.” Engineers, maps, meetings, parliamentary committees, -protestors. In 2016 the necessary legislation was passed for Phase 1 of HS2 from London to Birmingham. “They just designed a simple enough concept to get it through parliament,” Lord Berkeley said. “HS2 Ltd did not design a railway. They did very little site investigation like bore holes. They relied on geological maps.”

Backyard blues

Euston station is a functional mid-1960s hall with none of the Victorian cathedral grace of St Pancras. Waiting made me antsy; the platform for the 9.23am to Birmingham was not announced until seven minutes before departure. I walked with my iced coffee along the platform to carriage E, past several empty first-class carriages where tables were laid with silverware and china. The train slowed through Watford Junction, but otherwise we sped along, clackety-clip. It was the hottest day of the year, late July, the countryside a blur of golden wheat and dark green. The journey should have taken an hour and 21 minutes; we were seven minutes late into Birmingham. The driver announced something to do with a signal.

HS2 Phase 1 will leave Euston through a technically difficult and staggeringly expensive tunnel—£8bn on some estimates, around 1.25bn a mile—then run underneath central London to a new west London station at Old Oak Common. It will then go through the Chilterns to the nattily titled Birmingham Interchange—all change for Birmingham International Airport, a car park, possibly a local shuttle service to Coventry and a to-be-built business park. Then it’s on to a new Curzon Street station in central Birmingham.

The Chilterns is a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. As soon as HS2 was announced, protest groups were set up in almost every town and village along the route. Several national campaigns were set up too; “Stop HS2” has a comprehensive website where every twist and turn of the project has been documented. Inevitably for communities along the route, the disruption caused by a railway that looks like a straight line some nameless planner ruled on a map is an intimate catastrophe. Farms, livelihoods, manors and mansions, copses, ancient woodland, hidden streams and holloways, iron-age burial grounds, butterfly habitats and badger barrows. Protestors have camped out, chained themselves to trees, been arrested for trespassing HS2 works sites. I read a book by Gail Simmons, The Country of Larks: A Chiltern Journey In the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson and the Footprint of HS2. In one patch of woods, Simmons came across knitted scarves wrapped around tree trunks as a way of marking their forthcoming loss.

Some action groups have managed to influence parts of the route, with more than 400 changes to the initial design made as a result of local petitions. Legal challenges were mounted, and some—including one by a developer who owns large amounts of requisitioned land around Euston—are ongoing. Bureaucracy, corporate obfuscation and the slowness of the compensation system has been a continual feature of the process. In 2016 a report into the complaints, commissioned by the Parliamentary and Health Services Ombudsman, found HS2 Ltd guilty of “maladministration.”

Runaway costs

So far, so expected. Victorian landowners opposed the first railways as eyesores that divided land, ruining their fox hunting and scaring the cattle. Everyone knows you have to break eggs to make an omelette. HS2 Phase 1, from London to Birmingham, is projected to open in 2026. Phase 2, which gives the route two extra Y branches—one to Leeds and the other to Manchester—is planned to follow in 2036. There was originally vaguer talk about extending the line through to Edinburgh and Glasgow, where the total distance from London would make the time saved more significant. But that no longer seems to be a prospect.

Many of the uncertainties are created by the question of money. For six years, from 2013 until this summer, HS2 Ltd insisted that the budget was unchanged: £55.7bn. Even this was an awful lot. Building railways in Britain is relatively more expensive than in other countries, up to “nine times higher” than the equivalent cost per kilometre in France according to one figure quoted by the Lords Economic Affairs -Committee. Different experts I talked to suggested different reasons: contingency margins built into contractors’ estimates, the high costs of land and property in the UK, inefficiency between quango, consultants, contractors and subcontractors. One railway engineer I talked to said, “It’s a whole amount of bureaucracy on top of different bodies, all of whom are making a profit somehow.”

It’s almost axiomatic that big infrastructure projects end up costing far more than their estimates, but the HS2 Ltd and the Department of Transport clung to the £55.7bn figure long after serious questions were being raised by government auditors. As far back as 2012, the Major Projects Authority attached to the Cabinet Office published a report, not made public until 2015 under a Freedom of Information request, stating that HS2 was unaffordable. In 2015, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority—roughly the same entity under a new name—concluded that the budget for HS2 was “fundamentally flawed” and could overshoot by as much as 60 per cent. This would potentially push the price up to £90bn. This report was not made public until it was leaked in July 2018. It turned out that the IPA, the government’s own invigilator, had given the HS2 project an amber-red warning for six straight years. It declared, “successful delivery of the project is in doubt, with major risks or issues apparent in a number of key areas.”

I talked to Michael Byng, who literally wrote the book on railway costing, entitled Rail Method of Measurements. He got involved with HS2 in 2015, when a Camden residents’ group commissioned him to cost the redevelopment of Euston station. HS2 Ltd never challenged Byng methodology or figures, nor came up with any of their own. He was later asked by a senior official at the Department for Transport for an informal costing of the whole of Phase 1, from London to Birmingham; he came up with a figure that was double HS2 Ltd’s. But still, the official, publicly defended figure didn’t change. At an industry convention Byng ran into a former HS2 Ltd engineer who admitted to him privately that his estimates were “bang-on” their own internal figures. Byng’s figure, that put the cost of the whole project somewhere north of £80bn, was an open secret.

In July, Lord Berkeley summed up his understanding of the cost creep and denial to the Lords. “I fear that there is a concerted effort by officials and successive ministers to prevent scrutiny of the costs and programme, to refuse to discuss ways to reduce costs and generally to batten down the hatches over a six-year period.”

Is there an inherent institutional problem in the way that the UK organises these sort of projects? Does something—accountability, action, vision—get lost between layers of ministries, governmental oversight bodies, parliament, quangos and the attendant private sector of lobbyists, consultants, lawyers, contractors? “That’s a fair comment,” said Adonis—who himself went on from government office to chair the National Infrastructure Commission—when I put it to him. But, citing the example of the high-speed station in Stuttgart, now two decades late, he pointed out that other countries also have a terrible time organising such things.

Perhaps so. But since its creation in 2009, HS2 Ltd has had five chairmen, a similar number of CEOs, and a merry-go-round of employees. Freedom of Information requests by the Times discovered that over 300 of them earned six-figure salaries in the year 2017-18. Senior managers revolve between the public and private sectors, moving from outside consultancies to Crossrail, Network Rail and HS2, then back again. “The question of declarations of interests doesn’t seem to come into any of these things, which is bloody ridiculous,” Lord Berkeley complained to me.

Most damning of all has been the testimony of two former senior HS2 managers who became whistleblowers. Doug Thornton, one of the company’s six directors of land and property in its first five years, and Andrew Bruce, head of planning and performance for six months between 2015 and 2016, refused to toe the official line about land-acquisition costs. They talked to the media and gave evidence to parliamentary committees, claiming that the purchase of land and property costs were severely underestimated, and that they had been pressured to conceal those facts. HS2 had sacked them.

Facts on the ground

Birmingham New Street Station was rebuilt in 2015, box-fresh with all the Pret-a-Manger modern amenities. I was met off the train by a nice young member of the HS2 Ltd public relations team who chatted as we walked. “Birmingham’s got more canals than Venice, and the world’s largest Primark!” he exclaimed. We passed construction hoardings, an urban plaza-park, cranes leaned over glassy towers, tramlines—a cityscape in -transition. The Curzon Street HS2 station will be right next to New Street and Moor Street stations. The site is a vast oblong stretch of land between the rail lines coming into New Street and a line of blocky buildings in the university quarter. The land was old railway yards, derelict for years, tarmacked as a car park. Over the past months, it has been levelled. At one end, a student block was about to be demolished; at the other, diggers were moving an old cemetery. HS2, the nice public relations man reminded me, is the UK’s largest archaeological dig.

The site engineers, who worked for two different contractors, pointed out other changes: Digbeth, the hipster arty district around the old Birds Custard Factory; the Steam House Project that will be a tech education centre in partnership with Microsoft; Birmingham University’s plans for expansion. Developers have submitted planning applications for hotels, shops, 9,000 new flats. They compared it to Canary Wharf—“although it’s not on the same scale, of course!” Still standing amid the rubble, elegant and neoclassical, was the old Curzon Street station hall, built in 1838. The world’s oldest railway building, it will be preserved as a joint venture between HS2 and Birmingham University and Historic England, and become a community centre with a cafe. The planning application for the new station, designed with a long ellipse of a roof, is nearly complete. But when HS2 tendered for bids to build it earlier this year, there were no takers.

Amid the many uncertainties about Brexit and a potential election, all the old fundamental arguments about HS2 have resurfaced. If HS2 was about connecting the north, why begin the work in London? What is the point in linking big cities when people really need a better commuting network across the Pennines? Wouldn’t building Northern Powerhouse Rail, a Crossrail for the north, be better than shaving 20 minutes off travelling to Birmingham? Aren’t passenger numbers finally falling because everyone’s working from home? What about investing in fibre-optic internet instead? Do we really need a super-fast railway in England, a small country, whose area is little more than a quarter of France. And if you’re talking about connectivity, what happens to smaller places like Coventry, Doncaster and Wolverhampton that won’t be on the high-speed line? Could their own direct connections into London become less viable when all the traffic diverts? And doesn’t “greater connectivity” just create a greater magnetic pull to London?

Everyone has an opinion. In Phase 2, for example, there is another hub planned at Toton, stranded between Nottingham and Derby. Rail engineers love out-of-town stations because they’re easier to build than in the middle of crowded cities. But have Ebbsfleet and Ashford benefited from being on the HS1 route to Paris? What’s the point of connecting people to a place they don’t want to go to? In the run-up to the Olympics, building a dedicated high-speed station at Stratford in east London seemed like a good idea. But the Eurostar never stopped there.

When I asked Lord Berkeley what should happen next, he replied, “Stop everything!”—only half-joking. He may get his chance: when Shapps announced his review, he named Lord Berkeley as its deputy chair. But Shapps was careful, too, to put HS2 enthusiasts on the review team, including Andy Street, Conservative mayor of the West Midlands. When I met Street in Birmingham—before the review had been announced—he told me: “Politicians still talk in London if this happens. But it is actually happening.” He pointed out that HSBC had already moved its headquarters from London to Birmingham in anticipation of HS2. “You can go and see the diggers on the ground. The work on the Curzon Street station site has started!”

For the pro-HS2ers, the overarching argument is growth and regeneration. As Adonis put it, “the biggest single problem facing Stoke and Coventry is not the precise journey times to London or whether they have direct trains or not. It is that there are not enough jobs in their own conurbations.” Street talked about the plans for new development, mixed commercial and some 4,000 residential homes, around the new Birmingham Interchange hub.

But to reap the real benefits of connectivity, even more money will be needed: in a 2018 report, the current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, John Armitt, suggested an extra £43bn of investment would be required around the new hub station sites. Street admitted: “We haven’t actually got the funds yet to build the infrastructure needed to build that out.” He imagined that some would come from private sources, some from Whitehall and some from the Midlands Authority.

Slow Train Coming!

In the middle of July, the new chairman of HS2 Ltd, Allan Cook (formerly of Atkins management consultancy) told the government, in a letter leaked to the press, that he’d had a chance to look over the figures, and—lo and behold, oops!—HS2 was likely to cost more like £85bn. A month later, the BBC reported that both the government and HS2 Ltd had known that the project was over budget and probably behind schedule as long as three years ago—yet had publicly insisted all was well.

I’ve come to suspect that the ducking of the real cost of HS2 was a ploy to buy enough time to get it to the point of no return before the Treasury could scupper it. That might just work, even given that potentially fateful “go or no go” review. The balance of its panel, between determined HS2 supporters and detractors, seems expressly designed to create a fudge. That could get the Conservatives through an autumn election, allowing MPs of different beliefs to point to the review as proof that their own “side” is being listened to through the campaign. But what then?

HS2 enthusiasts I talked to seemed resigned to the fact that some cost cutting measures will have to be taken, even as the more serious of these threaten to undermine the greater point of speed and connectivity that HS2 promised us. Could it be, for example, that those expensive plans to redevelop Euston will be shelved, so that trains would terminate at Old Oak Common and disgorge passengers on to Crossrail to complete their journey into central London? That would hardly in keeping with the original promise of -convenient, seamless travel. Some engineers speculate that specifications could be revised for trains to run at lower speeds so that the costs of tunnels and viaducts could be reduced—lower speed high-speed in other words. Other compromises might include fewer stations. One of HS2’s critics told me, “myself and other seasoned observers think there is a good chance HS2 will never get past Crewe,” which would leave the great super-train to the north stopping at the top of the Midlands.

Shortly after becoming prime minister, Boris Johnson told Birmingham Live radio, “no one is more fanatical about big infrastructure projects than me!”, even though he also acknowledged that the cost of HS2 “will probably be north of £100bn.” In these two adjacent pronouncements Johnson caught the rub of it: on the one hand, the excitment of speed, technology, fast forward to future! —as Street put it to me, “a wonderful once in a generation opportunity.” On the other an, um, ginormous bill.

It remains to be seen whether Johnson blows the whistle for the go-ahead, shunts the project into the sidings, or devises his own railway metaphors for some sort of bungled compromise. But the big picture is compelling. Perhaps all our nellying is just the inevitable part of the process. I remember all the whinging about delays, cost overruns and the weird intra-national semi-private financing arrangments to dig the Channel tunnel and build the HS1 line that connects to it. Now I live in Paris and couldn’t imagine life without the Eurostar.