HS2 cut back everywhere, except in the price tag
The head of HS2, Sir Jonathan Thompson, has appeared before the UK Parliament Transport Select Committee. He was called to give a briefing on the progress of the project. Sir Jon was candid about the escalating cost of the HS2 project. Despite the radically cut back line, reduced to a London to Birmingham shuttle, the cost is still likely to exceed the original budget for the entire network.
Members of the UK Parliament have been given a stark warning. Britain’s high-speed railway will still be Britain’s high-cost railway. Sir Jon Thompson, the Executive Chairman of High Speed 2 Ltd (HS2), has acknowledged that the estimated cost for the first phase is still very high. Building costs for the line could now reach as high as 66 billion pounds (77 billion euros). Material price increases alone could account for as much as an additional ten billion pounds (11.7 billion euros).
Shorter line, longer prices
The Cross-party Transport Select Committee scrutinises all aspects of transport policy and implementation in the UK. The members, drawn from the elected body of the Parliament, call witnesses to given evidence. From that, they publish reports and recommendations to further inform debate in the parliament at large. The HS2 project has frequently been on their agenda.
In his evidence to the Committee, Jon Thompson explained that there are discrepancies in estimates. These stem from the government and HS2 Ltd using 2019 prices. He says they have failed to account for inflation, following the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The company’s latest estimate for the reduced London to Birmingham line is up to almost 57 billion pounds (67 billion euros), at 2019 prices. The 2009 estimate for the entire network, including legs to Manchester and Leeds, was around 37 billion pounds (43 billion euros).
Precious little building going on
The Committee, chaired by Iain Stewart, the Conservative MP for Milton Keynes South, questioned Sir Jon. They asked about the progress and milestones of the London to Birmingham section (“Phase One”) over the past six months. Sir Jon noted that civil engineering is over halfway complete, with this year expected to see the peak for construction. However, he acknowledged challenges. He emphasised the outstanding decisions on tunnelling from the interim terminus at Old Oak Common to the centrally located terminus at Euston. Currently, the scene there is a controversial and much-maligned building site, with precious little building going on.
The testimony comes just months after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced the cancellation of planned HS2 lines north of Birmingham due to cost concerns. The government believes the project should be delivered nearer to a lower cost estimate of 45 billion pounds (over 52 billion euros). Sir Jon doubted the feasibility of the 45 billion pound estimate, emphasising that the initial budget was too low … if any sum in eleven figures can ever be described as “low”.