I have no regrets in planning HS2

As transport secretary during the last Labour government, I only wish we had more time in office to see the project through

October 25, 2023
Andrew Adonis was transport secretary in 2009 and 2010. Image: Alex MacNaughton / Alamy Stock Photo
Andrew Adonis was transport secretary in 2009 and 2010. Image: Alex MacNaughton / Alamy Stock Photo

You would think, from the government and the media, that HS2 was dead and buried, and probably deserved its fate. None of this is true. As HS2’s principal architect back in 2009 and 2010 during the last Labour government, I only wish that our time in office had lasted longer so that we could have seen it through—instead of the serial delay, instability and incompetence in execution which followed in the 13 years of the present government. 

On the issue of life and death, I am glad to report that despite Rishi Sunak’s cancellation of its northern branches, the spine of HS2 is alive and well. A hundred and forty miles of new rail track from London to Birmingham, Britain’s first and second largest cities and conurbations, are under construction and will be completed within a few years. This part follows my 2010 blueprint almost exactly, which is a tribute to the Transport Department’s exceptionally able planners and economists who pioneered the original HS2 scheme. It’s also thanks to a cross-party consensus I worked hard to foster as transport secretary, which survived until Sunak bizarrely chose to make the cancellation of a railway line from Birmingham to Manchester a totem of his claim to be the agent of “change” at the unpopular tail end of four terms of Tory/Brexit/austerity government since 2010.

This cross-party consensus enabled the project to advance after 2010, albeit far too slowly, despite almost annual changes in the executive or ministerial leaders responsible for HS2 since 2010. There are more tunnels and the total cost is a lot higher than originally envisaged, to which I will revert later, but this central section of HS2 is intact and will not be undone.

When HS2 opens, I expect it will be greeted as a transport miracle, rather like the first railways and motorways, or more recently the Elizabeth Line in London and high-speed lines around the rest of the world. All of these at the time had critics on grounds of cost and novelty in their generally fraught periods of construction. High-frequency, reliable, high-speed trains will complete the central London to Birmingham journey in about 40 minutes, half the current journey time, and without the constant delays and cancellation which bedevil today’s congested Victorian main line from Euston to the Midlands and the north. 

From the critics, you would think that HS2 was an unnecessary luxury. Why is it then that virtually every other large, developed nation in Europe and Asia—starting with Japan 60 years ago between Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka, a distance similar to that between London, Manchester and Glasgow—has built high-speed lines connecting their principal cities, and all of them are running at high capacity? For exactly the same reason as HS2 is being built: because of the necessity for vastly more rail capacity and connectivity than the existing 19th-century railways provide in this new age of the train, when inter-city traffic is shifting decisively from road to rail. The only valid criticism of HS2—the full 330-mile version with its branches to Manchester and Leeds, serving most of England’s largest cities—is that it is being built several decades later than it should have been, because of the poverty of aspiration of the leaders of the British state which haunts our infrastructure projects, and our broader politics.

Despite the amputation of the Manchester and Leeds branches of HS2, high-speed trains will run off the high-speed line north of Birmingham and proceed slowly to Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow on existing tracks. When that happens, the contrast between the old and the new rail infrastructure will be so stark, and congestion north of Birmingham so severe, that I expect the Manchester and Leeds branches will be built fairly rapidly. This will complete the 2010 blueprint, which, like the southern section, remained conceptually intact until the northern branches were cancelled for purely cost reasons. There will be massive political and social pressure for the north to be “levelled up” to the 21st-century rail standard of London and the Midlands. 

The problems of HS2 result from mismanagement in execution, not from conception or design. The main effect of the Sunak axe will probably be just to dramatically increase costs and regional disparities until the 2010 scheme is eventually completed. Every year of delay in extending HS2 will have a severely detrimental effect on the economies of the northern conurbations as people and business move to Birmingham in particular, with its super-fast, frequent and reliable commuter-style service to London. It will include a direct connection with the Elizabeth Line, a 30 minute-journey from a huge park-and-ride station at the Birmingham International station serving Birmingham Airport, which also connects to the West Coast Main Line and motorways at Solihull. 

So despite the recent alarums and excursions, HS2 is progressing and will probably be completed according to its original conception—meeting the key requirements of rail capacity and connectivity, and bridging the north/south divide—which animated it from the start. I have no regrets in having planned and initiated HS2, and I predict that Sunak’s decision to halt construction north of Birmingham will be seen as one of the worst, most short-sighted transport infrastructure decisions of the last 50 years. 

The only conceptual criticism of HS2 to have gained traction is that it was engineered to be “too fast” at 250 mph (making it Europe’s fastest railway). The continent’s existing high-speed lines are mostly engineered to 200 mph or less. This allegedly adds significant to costs and is unnecessary. 

In fact, the difference between building a conventional line and a high-speed one is estimated to be only about 10 per cent of costs. This marginally higher price—and the necessity for a fairly straight line on the HS2 alignment—would also apply to a slightly less high-speed line running at about 200 mph. The reason for HS2 running at up to 250 mph is simply because it is more modern than most of Europe’s and Japan’s high-speed lines, which were built decades ago. Most new high-speed lines are being built to higher speeds. Meanwhile, Japan, once again pioneering high-speed rail, is now building an ultra-fast Maglev line running at 311 mph between Tokyo and Osaka, to relieve the 60-year-old high-speed line and provide additional capacity. It would have been perverse for the UK to opt for old technology as a matter of principle. Maybe we should have gone straight to Maglev, and I considered this seriously between 2009 and 2010 as a joint project with the Japanese. However, I judged the costs, the likely critics and the sheer challenge of modern Britain pioneering in this uncharacteristic way, as insuperable barriers—which must have been correct given the problems with HS2. 

That brings us to the cost. The cost of the full HS2 scheme has roughly doubled since it was fixed at £56 billion in 2015, shortly before the key legislation to build the railway was enacted by parliament by a 10-to-one majority. (Cancelling the northern leg by Sunak did not require a parliamentary vote: had it done so he would probably have lost it). 

Now, most of this cost increase is caused by inflation since 2015, and it is vital to appreciate that construction cost inflation has affected virtually all infrastructure projects, large and small, to a similar degree since 2015. The Hinkley C nuclear power station now under construction has seen its costs nearly double from £18bn to £33bn in the same period. Furthermore, the same cost and inflation pressures will apply to all those new and upgraded northern rail projects which will now become necessary after HS2’s cancellation, including a large stretch of the newly announced rail line from Liverpool to Manchester and Leeds, which alone will eat up most of the HS2 “saving” of £36bn. It will also apply to all the road and rail schemes supposedly made possible by HS2’s cancellation, but which had mostly been promised long before. 

Of course, the original £56bn was itself far too high by international standards, as is the cost of Hinkley C and virtually all other large infrastructure in modern Britain, including new roads. The short Stonehenge road tunnel for the A303 in Wiltshire alone has a projected cost of £2bn. But the answer is to tackle the UK’s chronic problems in executing infrastructure projects, including excessive planning requirements and political delays, nimbyism and the lack of embedded engineering expertise in the British state. The answer is not to cancel vital projects halfway through, long after escalating costs have become apparent. 

Even with these higher costs, Britain still spends far less than most developed nations on infrastructure as a share of national income. It is surely not beyond the capacity of modern Britain to have a modern railway line serving its principal cities. To argue that this may intrinsically be too “low value” on an economic cost/benefit ratio—the gravamen of Stephen Glaister’s critique—is to defy the experience of virtually the entire developed world. It is like arguing that the motorways should not have been built (there were many who said so at the time). As a former head of the RAC Foundation, Glaister would never have made that mistake. 

Last year London’s Elizabeth Line came in finally at a bloated £19bn, billions over budget and four years late. Like the M25, the Victoria and Jubilee lines and virtually all other new transport infrastructure serving highly populated urban areas, it is massively outperforming its original traffic projections and critics have vanished like the mist at dawn. It is already the busiest railway line in the UK. HS2, serving the huge cities of London, Birmingham and Manchester, will very likely go the same way and defy its critics—when, finally, it is completed according to its sound original conception.