UK HS2 north of Birmingham delayed for years
Sources close to the British high speed rail project HS2 have said that the project is to be delayed in an effort to cut spiralling costs. Only the section between London and Birmingham is to go ahead as planned, with an opening sometime late in this decade. However, the sections north of Birmingham – to connect the line with Manchester and a link directly on to the West Coast Main Line at a point near Crewe – could be delayed indefinitely in an effort to rein in costs.
The vast civil engineering project HS2, designed to build a new high speed railway between London and Birmingham (with extensions to the north of England), has been beset by cost overruns and delays. Now the project is set to be officially delayed, as the UK government seeks to make the more than 100-mile (160 km) route affordable. Some estimates have put the total cost at over 100 billion pounds (115 billion euro). The news, brought by the BBC, comes a week before the UK budget is announced, a timing point that has been noted by critics as a way of avoiding making an embarrassing parliamentary announcement. The news was also broken the day after the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons.
Three times over budget
The HS2 project has been beset by difficulties throughout its planning and construction. Originally the line was intended as a core route between London and Birmingham, which would dramatically reduce journey times between the two largest cities in the UK. However, that emphasis has shifted to releasing capacity, primarily on the West Coast Main Line (WCML), already the busiest mixed-traffic route in Europe.
The spine between London and Birmingham was to have been the beginning of a network which would directly serve Manchester; a spur to the WCML (the cancelled Golborne Link); and an “Eastern Leg” which would serve many cities in the Midlands of England, go north to Sheffield and Leeds and then join the East Coast Main Line, serving Newcastle and Scotland. That project was controversy cancelled last year, resulting in calls of betrayal from elected representatives throughout the north of England.
Now, with costs estimated at over three times the original estimate of 33 billion pounds (around 37 billion euros) British media sources have said that the government is about to announce a formal delay to the project, in order to cut costs – or more accurately spread the costs and spread the decision making timeline on the rest of the project. The line had already been the subject of cost-cutting speculation, including a widely reported prospect that the west London station at Old Oak Common would be made the final terminus – some five miles (8 km) from the intended central London terminus at Euston, where extensive civil engineering has already taken place.
Pandemic effect on business case
HS2 sources have already explained that the project is under fire from rising costs out-with their control. The company formed to build the line, HS2 Limited, is facing vast increases in construction materials and costs. It has already invested heavily in reassuring its stakeholders of the viability of the project. Mark Thurston, the chief executive of the company, has repeated in many interviews that the base costs continue to rise for basic construction materials. Timber, steel, aggregates and concrete are all rising he said. Add to that the rising cost of fuel he has said, and it is clear that the project is in some jeopardy.
The Business case for HS2 has been undermined by a number of factors, not least the changing business landscape. When proposed, the line was promoted as a business tool, enabling greater connectivity between the booming South East of England and the relatively underperforming West Midlands, centred around Birmingham. However, the pandemic changed all that, encouraging more enterprises to adopt remote working and suppressing the need for face to face travel. Most rail operators have reported that demand has not fully recovered, even now.
No good news for critics or supporters
In the face of further delays and potential cutbacks, it is difficult to see where the good news will come for HS2. Those in favour of the project will doubtless see this as a let down. The argument in favour of HS2 is still very much that demand for travel on the London – Birmingham corridor still outstrips capacity and, even with the pandemic effect, there is still an urgent need for the new line. Those in favour of the northern sections of HS2 – notably the vocal mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, will see this as further economic depravation of the north of England. The programme of rail improvements for the region, connecting cities from Liverpool to Hull and Newcastle, has already been greatly reduced on the grounds of cost.
For critics of the line the delay will be seen as vindication of their opposition. Delay may only prolong the uncertainty of those adversely affected by uncertainty over land use. There have been numerous cases of property blight because of uncertainty over construction routes. Many environmental campaigners will feel that the heavy-handed attempts to exclude them from debate are now being proved wrong and that the line will never actually reach any further north than Curzon Street in Birmingham.