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HS2 is running off the rails

Construction Work on the HS2 site just outside Euston station (Mark Thomas / Alamy Stock Photo)

7 min read

HS2 is in danger of becoming a national humiliation. Writer and consultant John Oxley argues that it is part of a growing trend of blocked development that threatens Britain’s economy

In France, the TGV cuts between cities at speeds of 200 miles an hour. The darling of the French rail network, it recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. The Japanese bullet train is older still, operational since the 60s. In Britain, national high-speed trains remain little more than a hope, as HS2 stagnates in the sidings, beset by delays, rising costs and political difficulties. Even with works already underway, it remains unclear exactly what will be delivered, while some still agitate to abandon the project altogether. 

The problems that have beset HS2 highlight how Britain’s major infrastructure has become bogged down in local objections and national inertia. Governments seem unable to commit the funds or political will to deliver landmark projects, while opposition has become more pronounced and effective. It makes development uncertain and fraught, hampering the economy and increasingly threatening Britain’s green transition.

HS2 was first proposed in 2008 following the success of HS1, which connects London to the Channel Tunnel and provides a fast commuter service through Kent. The coalition government confirmed a Y-shaped route linking Leeds and Manchester to London via Birmingham, set to open from the middle of this decade and delivered for a budget of around £30bn. Little of that plan remains. 

By 2016 the projected costs had risen to £50bn, while in 2020 this had doubled. Now the government has sought to prune the project. The leg to Leeds has already been cancelled, as has a spur that would have linked it to the West Coast mainline around Manchester. The government also proposes to delay the link to Euston until the 2040s, instead terminating at the fringes of London, while the Birmingham to Crewe leg has been delayed by two years. The country will now get far less railway, far later and at a much higher price than first envisaged. 

Rather than placating the scheme’s critics, this has emboldened them. More and more the railway system looks like a disruptive white elephant, its costs clear and its benefits distant. It has been particularly unpopular with Tory MPs. Some are sceptical of public transport and especially so of large government expenditure, but for many the issue is far more parochial.

The HS2 route cuts through vast swathes of the Tory countryside yet is largely seen as a benefit for the cities it connects. This means rural and suburban voters bear much of the disruption of the building process, the noise of trains running and the destruction of local greenery without having much of a stake in the finished project. It was hardly shocking that they are incensed by it – or that this is being echoed by local politicians. Anger at HS2 was cited as part of the reason for the Tory defeat in Chesham and Amersham, as well as Lib Dem and Green inroads into Tory councils. The scheme is now easily caricatured as an expensive, destructive way of lopping 20 minutes of a train to Birmingham. 

This view ignores the real potential gains of HS2. Speed is less important than capacity and redundancy. Moving intercity trains onto high-speed rails frees up space for local services and freight. It also moves passengers away from stopping services, making them less crowded, and adds extra routes to move around planned or unplanned disruption. It’s not simply faster journeys that HS2 offers, but a wholesale upgrade to the national network.

The country will now get far less railway, far later and at a much higher price than first envisaged

For the proponents, this brings significant economic benefits. The original strategic plan which underpinned HS2 highlighted the agglomeration and productivity gains that would derive from a more effective rail system. One forecast suggested a contribution of £15bn a year to the economy once the project was completed, and there remains a strong case that it would provide a net benefit. As costs spiral and the scope dwindles, these economic advantages will be chipped away too – a real problem in a country already struggling with growth. 

Were HS2 the only faltering national project it might be a forgivable misstep, but it is an all-too-common problem. In March, the National Infrastructure Commission warned that the government is comprehensively failing to meet targets for infrastructure projects it deems necessary for economic growth and the transition to net zero. From charging points to heat pumps, the numbers are too low and there is no credible plan to get to them. The only major project which has bucked the trend is high-speed broadband – underground cables could largely skirt around the planning system and was backed and delivered largely by the private sector. 

Elsewhere, Britain is littered with stalled infrastructure plans. Heathrow’s third runway has been discussed without resolution for a decade and a half, with the Tories flipping their position on it several times. The Leeds tram has been kicked around multiple times since the 70s, with a mid-2000s scheme spending £40m on consultations, only for it to be cancelled. In Cambridgeshire an extra lane for 10 miles of the A428 might finally break ground this year, 20 years after it was first proposed. While some of these projects might not be right to pursue, frustrating all of them seems like a bigger problem.

Many of these delays are rooted in the planning system. Between initial applications, appeals, and judicial reviews, obtaining planning permission for major infrastructure has become hugely burdensome. Despite the Planning Act 2008 creating a new system for “nationally significant infrastructure projects”, it has not succeeded in streamlining them. Research by the campaign group Britain Remade has shown increasing delays around approval for major projects and ballooning bureaucracy. The application for Sizewell C nuclear plant contained four times as many documents as that for Hinckley Point. Even with these increased demands, challenges to permissions are frequent – adding costs and deterring development. 

The result is that infrastructure development in Britain is slower and more costly than in other comparable countries. Norway can build a mile of road tunnel for a sixth of the cost of Britain. This deters investment, both from governments and from the private industries that might spring up around new infrastructure. The likelihood of major projects being deferred, delayed or cancelled further undermines their benefits, making the promise of some future road or railway not worth banking on. 

For now, Britain is about managing to coast on existing infrastructure, whether that is Victorian railways or 20th century roads and power stations. This can’t go on forever – a growing population and economy need investment, while net zero will require all sorts of development. Meeting decarbonisation goals means improving the grid to handle the load of electric cars, as well as building power stations, wind farms and transmission lines to deliver it. If each of these becomes mired in the same, decades-long cycle of applications, equivocation and overspending, Britain stands no chance of meeting its climate goals or seizing on the potential for economic growth. 

HS2 may now limp towards completion – yet in a scaled-back form which will incur much of the costs and deliver few of the gains of the original plan. If this pattern remains for our major projects, it will be one of many failures, likely to leave the nation poorer. If past performance is any guide, a piece of infrastructure proposed tomorrow would not be delivered until the 2050s. As other countries enjoy what they already have in place, we may have plenty of time to lament our inability to build.

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