2 August 2023

HS2 is making Britain an international laughing stock


It’s finally official: HS2 is ‘unachievable’, according to the UK’s Infrastructure and Projects Authority. That doesn’t mean the project isn’t still happening, or that it won’t cost us billions, it just means that years – decades, probably – ahead of its launch we know it isn’t going to deliver what we need from it.

What’s worse is that we’re going to learn all of the wrong lessons from its failure. Already the people who have reliably ensured HS2 wouldn’t work are saying that the overspends and reduced expectations show what they said all along – we should never have started it, we didn’t need it, local rail improvements were the way to go, and so on.

All of this is complete rubbish, as anyone who has to frequent either the East or West coast mainlines should already know. Both lines are absolutely creaking under the load of commuters they already bear, and signalling failures or some other problem routinely clogs up not just intercity travel but local commuters, who are packed onto the same train lines.

This was the reason for building a new, dedicated high-speed line – for intercity trains only. The name was always misleading, instead it is about capacity. A new dedicated line would mean that intercity trains could travel faster and more reliably. 

Crucially, it would serve the destinations of both the east and west coast main lines, which then would be entirely free from high speed intercity trains – meaning that they would create much more local and commuter capacity, for better trains and more frequent services.

HS2 was the local infrastructure investment its detractors said they backed, or that it was crowding out. The problem is that it now won’t deliver on most of that. The least important aspect of HS2 was a faster journey time between London and Birmingham, and that’s possibly the only bit we’ll actually get.

The problems with HS2 are all problems of government more than they are problems of delivery. The way the UK Treasury works out its spending – especially on investment – is genuinely ridiculous and anathema to long-term thinking. Because spending is worked out in ‘envelopes’ of certain numbers of years, there is an obsession with working out what the five-year figure is, rather than looking at what will put the UK in the best footing in 20 to 30 years’ time.

That means HS2 was constantly targeted for cuts to save pennies now, even at the cost of much larger amounts in lost future gains. Cancelling the eastern branch of HS2 was absolute idiocy, and should have marked the moment we knew the UK will not deliver a meaningful HS2 without a radical change in how we work. Once that branch wasn’t there, we defeat the point.

Constant requests and tinkering from the Treasury looking to prevent cost overruns is, inevitably, creating those overruns. The number of platforms at Euston constantly changes to see if that can change the maths, but this in turn ends up requiring all sorts of other changes down the line.

We have ended up in the position where an intercity route connecting the UK’s major city and capital is considering not even actually connecting to London. In the words of Succession’s Logan Roy, we are not serious people.

No sensible company would want to go anywhere near a major UK infrastructure project. No executive would want to lead one up. No civil servant would want to be involved at all. We have ensured that it is a sector without pride or prestige, because our politics prefers that we build nothing.

Our core sin is that we obsess, endlessly, about cost – the focus isn’t to deliver the best project possible, it is to ensure every penny is spent effectively, against a measure that doesn’t actually record spending in any sane way. As we try to pinch the pennies, the pounds roll out of the door – our infrastructure gets dated, and review after review of plans adds endless cost.

Until we try to build and invest well, instead of cheaply, we will continue to be the world’s laughing stock when it comes to major infrastructure. There is huge need for soul-searching, but it should be happening in the Palace of Westminster and in the halls of the Treasury – not in HS2 Ltd’s headquarters.

HS2 should have been the dream infrastructure project – it delivered for northern England, for Scotland, it made economic sense and (despite idiotic opposition from the greens) it helped the UK’s decarbonisation goals. If we can’t get this one right, we won’t get anything right. 

This should be a moment of collective national shame from our political class. Instead, it’s just going to drag on, and on, and on – much like most journeys on our crumbling railways.

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.

James Ball is Global Editor at the Bureau for Investigative Journalism.

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