25 August 2023

Building transport in Britain doesn’t have to be this hard

By Ben Hopkinson

It costs more to build new roads, railways and tramlines in Britain than it does almost anywhere else in the world. With major infrastructure projects like HS2 at risk of cancellation due to spiralling costs and frequent delays, it is worth reflecting on the fact that it doesn’t seem to be this hard everywhere.

The figures are stark. Britain Remade, the pro-growth campaign I work for, compiled a database of 240 road and rail projects from 14 countries indexed for inflation to 2023. Expanding underground and metro lines in the UK is 97% more expensive than in France, 129% more than Italy, and a whopping 405% more expensive than Spain on a per mile basis. At the same time as the 10 mile Jubilee Line Extension was nearing completion in London, Madrid was building 47 miles of new track. London paid 8.5 times more than Madrid on a per mile basis and took two years longer.

Or take Manchester’s Second City Crossing tram extension. At a cost of £203m to add just under a mile of track, it was not far off the £260m that the French city of Besançon spent on its entire nine-mile tram network. On a per-mile basis, the latter was almost nine times cheaper. Whilst the Second City Crossing was particularly expensive, the newest extension, the Trafford Park Line, still costs four times more than the French tram on a per-mile basis.

Railway electrification projects in the UK are also more expensive than European counterparts. The Great Western Electrification Programme between London and Cardiff went over budget and had to be scaled back. It ended up costing four times more per mile than the average for electrification projects in Switzerland and double that of Denmark or France. It is no wonder why, with such high costs, the UK trails behind the rest of Europe when it comes to the amount of railway that is electrified. Only 38% of Britain’s network is electrified compared to 71% in Italy and 100% in Switzerland. This means slower services with worse acceleration, higher maintenance costs due to heavy diesel engines, and more pollution.

Even among the UK’s expensive projects, HS2 stands out. Phase 1 from London to Birmingham is expected to cost £400m per mile, assuming that there are no further budget overruns. That’s nearly 10 times more than the TGV line that opened between Tours and Bordeaux in 2017, which cost just £46m per mile. This expansion is the first phase of further high speed connections to Toulouse and Dax, which is enabled by the cheaper construction costs. High construction costs have already led to HS2 being cut back, whilst other countries are expanding their high speed networks.

Unfortunately, the same expensive story also applies to Britain building new road projects. So far, more than £250m has been spent on the consultation and planning process for the Lower Thames Crossing, which hasn’t yet received consent and will end up costing at least £9bn. In Norway, when controlling for inflation, £250m could have paid for both the Laerdal Tunnel, which, at 15 miles long, is the longest road tunnel in the world, and the 5 mile Eiksund Undersea Tunnel, at the time the world’s deepest undersea tunnel.

Looking across 106 road projects from 11 countries in the database, building a new lane of road in Britain was 23% more expensive than France, 17% than Canada, and 13% more expensive than Italy. Not as extreme as rail or trams, but not good either.

Some projects stand out. Dualling an existing 3 mile stretch of the A303 between Sparkford and Ilchester in the South West costs more than Spain spent on 17 miles of new motorway in Tenerife. Or for the same £500m the UK will spend on adding a lane to the existing 4 mile A46 Newark bypass, Germany built 14 miles of new 6-lane motorway and refurbished another 14 miles as part of the A4 Autobahn.

The issue with all of these extra costs in the UK isn’t just the harm to the taxpayer, although the expense is significant. Rather the most consequential issue with the high costs is that fewer important transit projects get built. This means bypasses that could reduce congestion through a village and dualling projects that would speed up commutes aren’t built. Likewise small and medium sized cities are stuck with less reliable buses, when their populations could support a tram or light-rail system. An astonishing 30 French cities have a tram or light-rail system, compared to just seven in the UK. French cities as small as 50,000 residents, like Aubagne and Valenciennes, have constructed tramways. That’s smaller than Neath, Dunfermline, or Corby.

Put another way, every French city with a population greater than 150,000 has a light-rail system. Meanwhile, by my estimate, 30 UK towns and cities have a population greater than 150,000 and lack a tram or metro. This includes Leeds, Liverpool, Bristol, Cardiff, Milton Keynes, and Brighton amongst others. Leeds, population 812,000, is the largest city in Europe without any form of light-rail or metro.

Less than two fifths of workers in Leeds can get to the city centre by public transport in 30 minutes or less, while in similarly sized Marseille close to nine out of ten workers can. This may explain why Marseille’s residents are, on average, more productive than their counterparts in Leeds. When people lack reliable transport options to get from where they live to where the jobs are, they are forced to choose between long commutes or worse jobs. Without easy access to the city centre, the spontaneous connections and specialisation that can lead to new innovation may not happen. New transport lines would also lower the environmental toll of commuting and allow for new areas of homebuilding, helping to ease the chronic housing shortage in many of Britain’s cities.

Politicians have debated building a tramline for Leeds for decades – they even went as far as passing the Leeds Supertram Act in 1993. The benefits of the project are clear, yet cost has always been an issue. If new tram projects in the UK cost what they do in France, Leeds may no longer have the dubious title of ‘Largest City in Europe without a Metro’. Other countries are able to build trams, rails, and roads cheaper than us. British exceptionalism shouldn’t mean worse infrastructure, less connectivity and lower growth.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Ben Hopkinson is Policy Researcher at Britain Remade.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.