High Speed Two (HS2) is going through the classic “cold feet” period that 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 Labour will be tempted to propose “saving” £42bn by cancelling a “Tory” project. It was at a similar point that an incoming 1974 Labour government cancelled the Channel Tunnel and a new London airport at Maplin Sands in the Thames Estuary, inherited from Edward Heath’s government. They were deemed “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, shorttermist decisions. In the case of Maplin Airport, the last and 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 present 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.
The main justification for the project is not speed but capacity. There will be an acute shortage of transport capacity from the 2020s to carry freight, commuters and other passengers into and between London and the major conurbations of the West Midlands, the East Midlands and South and West Yorkshire. As there is no viable plan, let alone the political will, to build new motorways between these places, or to make possible a vast increase in air traffic between them, this additional capacity must be met largely by rail, or Britain will come to a halt. Rail is, in any case, the greenest and most efficient mode of transport for mass passenger and freight movements.
To meet this capacity crunch there is a simple choice: upgrade the existing (mostly Victorian) railway 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, Manchester and Glasgow was completed in 2008 at a cost of £10bn and after a decade of disruption, and yields a fraction of the capacity improvements of HS2.
The additional benefits of HS2 are considerable. As it extends further north, the time savings become steadily greater – nearly an hour off every journey between London and Manchester, Sheffield or Leeds. HS2 transforms links between the Midlands and the north, as well as between London and those regions.
Labour should be critical of the coalition’s mismanagement of HS2, though. After three years, there is still no legislation for even the first phase, running from London to Birmingham. Meanwhile, the projected costs have risen sharply to the current figure of £42.6bn from London through to Manchester and Leeds – mainly because of an enormous increase in provision for unplanned contingencies. This accounts for £14bn out of the £42.6bn. If the project were well managed there would be no need for such a large contingency reserve.
In 2015 Labour will need to get a grip on HS2 in order to speed up 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.