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What’s causing HS2’s endless downgrades and delays?

“The people’s railway”has been undermined by the UK’s disjointed approach to policy and planning.

By Jonny Ball

Britain has 113 kilometres of dedicated high-speed railway line, running between London and the Channel Tunnel’s entrance in Kent. According to the International Union of Railways, France has almost 25 times that amount, with 2,735km of high-speed rail. Spain, which started building high-speed rail in the 1980s, has 3,661. Turkey has 1,052km, and Saudi Arabia has 449. Morocco trumps the UK’s dedicated high-speed mileage with almost 200km of rail line between Tangiers and Casablanca.

Even our meagre 113km of track was built out of weary embarrassment: in the 1990s and 2000s, Eurostar trains in France and Belgium would travel at 200 miles per hour on the continent, but when they arrived in Folkestone they would slow to half that speed and share the track with rickety local services.

But this isn’t just a speed or track-measuring contest. Infrastructure like HS2 – the high-speed rail line that was meant to improve travel in England’s north, but which the government yesterday (9 March) announced yet another delay in the construction of – is supposed to boost productivity, unlock growth and usher in the agglomeration effects that would allow the north’s major civic hubs to act as an economic counterweight and genuine competitor to London. HS2 is meant to complement the so-called Northern Powerhouse Rail linking Liverpool to Hull. But that project so far only exists in the dreams of pleading northern mayors.

Five years ago, HS2’s chief executive told Spotlight it was the “people’s railway”. It was meant to link London to Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds, slashing journey times and, crucially, increasing the already-stretched capacity of existing track for freight and travellers.

[See also: The latest HS2 delay shows the Tories are still putting the north second]

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Yet since its announcement over a decade ago, the project has been beset by downgrades and delays. The eastern leg of the line, connecting Birmingham and Leeds, has been scrapped. Yesterday, the government confirmed that the Birmingham to Manchester leg would be delayed by two years to 2041. To make matters worse, the line won’t even reach central London until 2035, instead stopping at Old Oak Common, an under-construction station that the company in charge of the line’s development describes as a “super-hub” – which sits on the cusp of zones two and three, near Acton in the west of the capital.

The costs of the whole project have ballooned to £71bn and are likely to rise further. Most of the cash has gone towards compensatory land purchases, and inflation is hitting hard. The process has been inexorably slowed by the UK’s sluggish and byzantine planning system, aided by a coalition of Nimbys, affected homeowners, conservationists, environmentalists and rural landowners. Fiscal conservatives and the Treasury’s hawks baulk at the ever-swelling expenditure, which will work out at around £300m per mile – the most expensive railway in the world.

This fiasco is symbolic of the UK’s ad hoc, disjointed approach to policymaking and major infrastructure projects. Rather than seeing things through to completion, ministers are subject to endless churn and are plagued by short-termism. They rework commitments, downgrade, muddle through and fudge. HS2 was meant to be a cornerstone of the Northern Powerhouse and levelling up. But just as those agendas have been slowly whittled down, the railway line has suffered endless setbacks. Though the project was initially designed to boost Britain’s left-behind regions, it was inexplicably decided to begin work in the capital and go northwards, rather than the other way around. And it has only gone poorly from there.

After a decade of disappointments, trans-Pennine commuters will be sceptical about whether HS2 or Northern Powerhouse Rail will ever be fully completed. Meanwhile, the UK’s creaking public realm continues to slip not just behind its European competitors, but towards the standard of emerging markets and developing republics. “The people’s railway” has a long way to go.

[See also: The myths of “the north”]

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