High Speed Two (HS2) is going through the classic ‘cold feet’ period which bedevils every major British infrastructure project and which, with our short-termist political culture and poor project management, often leads to them being cancelled.
This phase will continue until the 2015 election, when the temptation for Labour to claim it is ‘saving’ £42bn by proposing to cancel a ‘Tory’ project will be intense. It was at a similarly early phase in their construction that the incoming 1974 Labour government cancelled the Channel Tunnel and the new London airport at Maplin Sands in the Thames Estuary, inherited from the Heath government. They were dubbed ‘Tory extravagance’ although, like HS2, their origins lay in the previous Labour government and there was nothing remotely right-wing about them.
These were stupid short-termist decisions. In the case of Maplin, the last, best opportunity to relocate the UK’s principal international gateway to a far larger and more suitable site was thrown away. We are still paying the price in the current impasse over a third runway at Heathrow when the international airports serving Amsterdam. Paris and Frankfurt have six, four and four runways respectively.
It would be a similar act of national self-mutilation to cancel HS2 in 2015, six years into the project.
The case for High Speed Two is as strong now as when Labour committed itself to the project in March 2010 and virtually none of the arguments of the latest critics, including the Institute of Economic Affairs, affect it.
For the key justification is not speed but capacity. There will be an acute shortage of transport capacity from the 2020s to convey freight, commuters and other passengers into and between the major conurbations of London, the West Midlands, the East Midlands and South and West Yorkshire. Since there is no viable plan, let alone political will, to build new motorways between these places, or to dramatically increase air traffic between them, this additional capacity must largely be met by rail or Britain will grind to a halt. Rail is, in any case, the most efficient and green mode of transport for mass passenger and freight movements.
To meet this capacity crunch there is a simple choice: upgrade existing (mostly Victorian) rail lines and stations, or build entirely new lines and stations. Upgrading existing lines is hugely expensive and yields far less additional capacity than building new lines: the last major upgrade of the West Coast Main Line from London to Birmingham and Manchester was recently completed at a cost of £10bn, after a decade of disruption, and yielded only a fraction of the capacity improvements of HS2.
HS2 trebles existing rail capacity between the conurbations it serves, to the benefit not only of intercity services but also local and freight services because of the capacity freed up on the existing lines. Detailed costings that I commissioned in 2009 suggested that to secure just two-thirds of HS2’s extra capacity by upgrading existing lines would cost more in cash terms than building HS2.
So there is no free lunch – or pot of gold which can be diverted to other projects in anything but the very short-term, with more costly consequences thereafter.
Debates about the benefits of faster journey times to Birmingham, and whether or not business travellers work productively on trains, are beside the point. If the additional capacity is required, it ought to be provided in the most cost-effective manner.
However, the additional benefits of HS2 are considerable. As HS2 proceeds further north, the time savings become steadily greater: nearly an hour off every journey between London and Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds. The connectivity benefits are also dramatic. HS2 transforms links between the Midlands and the north, as well as between London and those conurbations. HS2 includes a direct interchange with Crossrail the new east-west underground line through London, opening in 2019 which will convey passengers to the West End, the City and Canary Wharf in a fraction of the time, and with far less than congestion than at present.
A second, north-south, Crossrail line will be needed in London from 2030, and works needs to start on this in parallel with HS2. But that is no excuse for the IEA confusing the two projects, aggregating them and lumping in other projects for good measure, to claim that HS2 will cost £80bn.
Where Labour should be critical is in the coalition’s mismanagement of HS2. After three years, there is still no legislation for even the first phase of HS2 from London to Birmingham. Meanwhile, the projected costs have risen sharply to the currently projected £42.6bn from London through to Manchester and Leeds in large part because of a massive increase in provision for unplanned contingencies. This accounts for £14bn of the £42.6bn. If the project were well managed there would be no need for such a large contingency reserve, and advice to the government suggests that including this simply bids up the cost of projects.
In 2015 Labour will need to get a grip on HS2 to accelerate progress and reduce costs. But it should not forsake an infrastructure project vital to our economic and social future. After all, the 1970s are no inspiration.
Andrew Adonis was transport secretary in the last Labour government