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HS2—the high speed rail that’s a slow speed fail

This article is over 4 years, 10 months old
As Boris Johnson plans HS3 in the north, Sarah Bates says the Tories’ high speed rail projects are about one thing only—making money for the bosses
Issue 2666
HS2 has turned into a white elephant for the Tories sucking up endless money
HS2 has turned into a white elephant for the Tories sucking up endless money

Everyone’s fed up with slow, unreliable, regional rail lines. Privatised operators seem to care more about keeping ticket prices high than making sure we can travel on trains that run on time, don’t get cancelled, and aren’t overcrowded.

The service on Northern Rail has been so bad for so long that even former Tory transport minister Chris Grayling—champion of the private rail firms—said the operator could lose the franchise.

But the solution isn’t, as Boris Johnson promised recently, HS3—a high speed rail link between Leeds and Manchester.

Just look at HS2—the shambolic high speed rail link between Birmingham and London.

Alongside the much-delayed Crossrail, HS2 was supposed to signal a new dawn in British transport.

But last month, HS2 Ltd boss Allan Cook had to admit that the project wouldn’t be completed within its £56 billion budget. He said up to a further £29 billion was likely to be needed.


It’s a huge increase from the original budget of £32 billion—and with years of construction left, costs are likely to skyrocket even further.

The spiralling costs are leaving many—including some Tory MPs—doubting whether the project is worth it. The Tories are split on this question but prime minister Boris Johnson has vowed to press on with plans.

He’s commissioned a review by former HS2 chairman Douglas Oakervee. “I’m going to hesitate for a long time before scrapping any major infrastructure project”, he said last week. Despite the hugely inflated budget, and years of delays, the project is slowly progressing.

Some 900 properties worth almost £600 million have been bought to allow for construction. In north west London, work has begun on a key HS2 station in Old Oak Common where the old train depot has been demolished to make way for a new station.

Planners say the station will be an interchange between HS2 and Crossrail and around 250,000 will pass through Old Oak Common every day. Major redevelopment has also begun in Euston—including evictions, felling 100 trees and tens of thousands of bodies exhumed and relocated.

The final line is set to look like a “Y”, with two lines branching off at Birmingham to Leeds and Manchester. But there’s still no legislation for construction past Birmingham.

HS2 was supposed to be a jewel in the crown for British transport. But instead it’s turned into a white elephant for the Tories—sucking up endless money but too expensive to abandon.

It is beyond doubt that major investment is required in public transport. But all HS2 has done is allow construction bosses to trouser wads of cash, while existing train lines are left to wrack and ruin.

There’s no magic bullet train to stop climate disaster

High speed rail is often sold as an environmentally-friendly travel option, but what are its green credentials?

HS2 claims that it “aims to be one of the most environmentally responsible infrastructure projects delivered”.

The key question is carbon emissions.

High levels of carbon in the atmosphere have caused Earth to heat up—causing catastrophic climate change.

Travelling by rail lets off less carbon emissions than travelling by air or road. But HS2 won’t actually reduce the demand for flying.

The proportion of journeys from London to Manchester or Leeds by plane is tiny.

Investment in high speed rail services that go further afield, such as Aberdeen, Exeter or the Channel Islands, would actually address the hugely-polluting aviation industry.

For HS2 to be carbon friendly, it would need to involve millions of people ditching cars or planes.

But instead, it’s likely to see passengers transferring from slower trains to the new high speed line—which emits significantly more carbon.


HS2 bosses emphasise the environmental case when it suits them—but the driving force behind the project is the “economic case”.

Can the world go carbon free?
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They focus on how the new services will mean “reduce costs to business and improve productivity”. And they give examples about how travelling to other cities for business will get so much easier.

So HS2 is envisioned as a commuter train, not as an alternative to air travel.

Major investment needs to be poured into the British transport system. This doesn’t just mean new train lines, but improvements to the existing ones.

For instance, many train tracks were unable to cope with the heatwave last month and the flooding that came just days after. But HS2 won’t address the problems faced by people struggling to get to work on rail replacement services throughout July.

Coping with a hotter world with more extreme weather events will require a different transport network. This would mean a huge programme of publicly owned infrastructure.

High speed rail could fit into that as an alternative to air travel—not as something designed and built to serve business.

Who is making a fast buck?

The only winners in the HS2 debacle are the private firms that have been handed billions of pounds of public money.

In July 2017, some 11 companies were chosen to undertake the first significant HS2 building work.

Some firms created “joint ventures” to bid for contracts.

One joint venture had firms Carillion, Kier and Eiffage winning two HS2 contracts worth about £1.34 billion.

Carillion, which employed about 19,000 people in Britain, collapsed in January 2018.

But both contracts were awarded after Carillion’s financial difficulties were public knowledge.

One person who won’t be worrying is Mark Davies—the head of Carillion’s infrastructure division when it collapsed.

He’s now head of a joint venture between construction firms Balfour Beatty and Vinci—which has won £3.8 billion in HS2 contracts.

A quick name change needed

Is the slow progress of HS2 giving high speed trains a bad name?

Some at the National College for High Speed Rail seemed to think so.

It’s set to be renamed the National College for Advanced Transport and Infrastructure after only signing up 96 students in 2018.

Minutes from a board meeting said several members saw the name as a “limiting factor” for the college.

Not that college bosses will be too worried—an extra £4.5 million in grants has been promised by the Department for Education to make up an expected shortfall over seven years.

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