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HS2: an opportunity lost

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Since late September, industry news has been dominated by the fate of HS2. After weeks of speculation, it did not come as a great surprise to many when the Northern leg of the project was axed in its entirety, but that’s not to say the news was any less shocking.

Since 2021, when the Leeds leg was cancelled, speculation has swirled around the project, but such was its merit that further cuts seemed remote. The project seemed to offer too much to let go.

Despite criticism from some quarters that HS2 was simply a fast route to London, in truth it was a project with a grand, sweeping vision. In its original form, it was to serve eight of the UK’s 10 largest cities and release large amounts of capacity on the West Coast, Midland, and East Coast main lines.

This increase in capacity would offer substantial improvements in local services and allow more freight trains on the network. Improved passenger services would encourage commuters out of their cars. Increasing freight on the rails would take it off the roads. The project would create an opportunity like no other to reduce the nation’s carbon transport emissions.

That grand vision is now lost.

But we must not also forget the human aspect. Official figures show that 954 homes have been bought by the Government for the later phases of the line. This aspect of large infrastructure projects is never an easy pill to swallow, but it has been made all the more bitter by the fact that people have now been uprooted for no good reason.

In addition, HS2 has always leaned heavily on its commitment to bringing new blood into the industry. During the lifecycle of the project, it expected to create at least 2,000 apprenticeship opportunities across a wide range of disciplines and specialisms. With its construction partners and suppliers also recruiting heavily, the project has already delivered thousands of immediate and sustainable jobs. Such roles will not now be available to those living in the North. HS2 has also celebrated its commitment to helping the long-term unemployed back into work.
While opportunities remain on Phase 1, those beyond Birmingham will not receive the same breaks.

Opponents of HS2 will say that Network North promises to redirect any savings from HS2 into investment in supporting rail and infrastructure improvements programmes across the North. It will create the same opportunities as the high-speed project. However, at present, Network North is just a promise, and one from a government that had previously promised to deliver HS2 in full.

HS2 was not without its problems, and cost estimates have progressively risen since its first phase 1 budget of £16.3 billion in 2013. The current budget for Phase 1 comes in at £40.3 billion plus a £4.4 billion contingency. But the argument that project costs were ‘spiralling out of control’ is not entirely accurate. Estimated costs have increased for many reasons over the past few years, not least the fact that construction inflation has increased the costs of new work by 24% since 2019.

Throw in Government indecision and delayed progress, 2019’s alterations to the HS2 Bill, which saw a 50% increase in tunnelling and cuttings to lower the railway, and a National Audit Office report in 2020, which concluded that the DfT and HS2 had underestimated the complexity of the project, it’s easy to see why original estimates proved inaccurate.

But there is a distinction between frivolous spending and investment. It is true that Government finances are under severe pressure, but this decision is a product of short-term thinking. For over a decade the government has argued that HS2 is essential to boost and rebalance the economy. HS2 was an investment for the future of the whole country.

We should take solace in the fact that the project is not entirely dead in the water. News that it will now terminate at London Euston is also positive, albeit tempered by its reliance on private investment.

We must now put our full weight behind the completion of Phase 1 and make the most of the benefits that line can bring. But it must be said that the UK and the Rail Industry deserve better.

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