3 October, 2023
Bloomberg, by Feargus O'Sullivan

Britain’s plans to expand its high-speed train network looks pulled into a siding. The question now is why and will it ever get back on track.

A plan first hatched in 2017, the High Speed 2 line — HS2 for short — was supposed to expand Britain’s super-fast train network, now limited to services between London and the Channel Tunnel, northward to Manchester and Leeds, England’s third- and fourth-largest metro areas. After axing the Leeds leg in 2021, the UK government is now considering completing the line only between London and Birmingham, a section that is already largely complete, and ending the London leg outside central London.

The move would not just be a blow to British aspirations to bring its high-speed rail network closer to continental European standards, reducing current London to Manchester journey times by 55 minutes, or roughly in half. It would also represent a major compromise on the government’s “levelling up” agenda, intended to raise investment in Northern England closer to those seen in London and the Southeast.

One culprit is soaring costs. The London-Birmingham leg had an estimated budget of £55.7 Billion ($68 billion) in 2015, but a review in 2020 suggested that could rise to £105 billion. This jump can partly be attributed to overall inflation, as construction costs in Britain rose by 15% in 2022 and 24.5% in 2021. Less obvious is a reason that will be equally familiar to frustrated North American advocates for better rail links: a nimbyist backlash, in this case from a lobby with particular influence over Britain’s Conservative government.

Criticism of this backlash has been widespread, including comments from former Conservative Prime Ministers Boris Johnson and David Cameron. Talking to Sky News last week, Johnson condemned the proposed cancellation as “desperate” while Cameron reiterated concerns voiced in his 2019 memoir, where he said HS2 and similar stalled projects reflect a Britain “blighted by a nimbyist aversion to doing anything radical or big or expensive.”

Opponents living along the line have cited the the destruction of landscapes in an already built-up corner of the country, fragmentation of habitats for some of Britain’s rarest mammals, and noise threats to previously tranquil areas as key causes for anxiety. While residents living within 60 meters of the line can sell their homes to HS2 for their pre-build value, homeowners a little beyond this limit have also cited sharp falls in property values. These effects might be more bearable, say anti-HS2 campaigners, if there were firmer evidence that, once its construction is taken into account, HS2 would reduce carbon emissions.

High Speed, Huge Cost

One widely discussed theory is that costs of HS2’s Phase One exploded over government worries about failing electoral support, leading it to favor its own base in England’s Southeast at the expense of regions further north. Afraid of alienating voters in the wealthy commuter belt north of London – long a Conservative heartland – the government pressured HS2 to tunnel as much as possible through the Chiltern Hills, causing a rise in costs so sharp that delivering the rest of the line fully may no longer be feasible. So many tunnels have been built or planned for the 134-mile stretch from London to Birmingham, The Times has reported, that passengers would only see daylight for seven minutes of the 45-minute journey.

HS2 says 81% of the route will be below ground level: 65 miles are in tunnels and another 44 are in “cuttings,” trenches dug to eliminate gradients, thereby allowing trains to maintain a consistent speed. One cutting is 30 meters deep and another required excavating 1.3 million tons of earth, enough to fill Royal Albert Hall 10 times.

The exact cost of adapting to local objections is impossible to verify. A freedom of information request from 2022 revealed that HS2 do not estimate the cost difference caused by its decision to build tunnelled rather than surface sections north of London. Writing in the Telegraph newspaper, HS2 Chair Jonathan Thompson did nonetheless confirm that tunnelling was a key factor in the line’s high cost, because the British are “more responsible builders than the French” in ensuring the public is fully listened to before major infrastructure works.

While Thompson’s comment about a gallic lack of responsibility might raise eyebrows, it is true that Britain spends considerably more delivering rail infrastructure than its European neighbors. According to the national economic growth campaign Britain Remade, HS2 would have been twice as expensive per mile as Italy’s most recently constructed high-speed link even at its original budget, and 3.7 times as expensive as the latest high-speed link in France.

That’s also true with urban public transit. Manchester’s Second City Crossing tramline, launched in 2017, cost more than four times per mile than France’s most expensive tram expansion since the millennium, Line B in Orleans. The per-mile cost of new subway lines in Britain in 2023, meanwhile, is 1.9 times higher than those in France or Spain and 2.9 times higher than in Germany.

Part of this could be down to land costs and levels of urbanization, both of which are above European averages in Britain and make weaving new links through built-up areas especially complex.

“There may be cases where a tunnel would be the cheapest option after considering the cost of land acquisition, environmental treatments and so on, while the relative cost of tunnelling has fallen in recent years,” said Taku Fujiyama from the engineering department of University College, London. “Paired with rising land prices, this is making tunnelled rail links more common. When Japan launched its first high-speed Shinkansen line, from Tokyo to Osaka, in 1964, just 13% of the route was tunnelled. With the new Shinkansen line currently being built through mountainous terrain to Hokkaido, that proportion will rise to 80%.”

A vital factor could also be Britain’s intricate planning process, where public consultation is painstaking and the results are scrupulously addressed, often raising costs substantially. Thompson wrote that costs on HS2 rose “because we choose tunneling over the demolition of whole communities and swathes of countryside to protect people, wildlife and our precious green spaces.”