28 September, 2023
Politico, by Esther Webber

“If you want to get on board the high-speed revolution, you’ve got to start planning now.”

These were the words of David Cameron in 2013 as he announced the route for Britain’s first extended high-speed rail network, known as HS2, a £37 billion state-of-the-art train line running through the heart of the country.

Ten years later, Britain's high-speed "revolution" has stalled.

With billions of pounds already spent, the promise of a high-speed line connecting central London to the northern cities of Manchester and Leeds looks doomed, as the U.K. government prepares its second program of project cuts in as many years.

Thanks to ballooning costs, the line now looks unlikely to reach Manchester, Leeds — or even central London — at all.

The project has become a huge embarrassment for a nation that once prided itself as the world's railway pioneer. Much soul-searching is underway about Britain's ability to deliver large-scale infrastructure projects on time and on budget.

"It’s been terribly badly managed," William Hague, the former Tory leader and U.K. Foreign Secretary under Cameron, said this week. "A national disgrace."

With impeccable timing, reports of the latest cuts to the HS2 project emerged just as the Conservative faithful prepare to head to Manchester for their annual party conference this weekend. Farcically, the news leaked when a government official was photographed heading into No. 10 Downing Street with telltale documents on show.

Protests are now expected in Manchester this weekend, where Labour Mayor Andy Burnham is ready to combust with anger at the curtailment of a project which was meant to symbolize the Conservative government's commitment to "leveling up" investment in the English regions. Downing Street has delayed a formal announcement until the conference is out of the way.

Despite the noisy recriminations, Rishi Sunak will try to win plaudits for his decision, portraying himself as a leader willing to confront problems other politicians have tried to ignore.

But a deeper malaise is apparent — a weighty British bureaucracy and a "not-in-my-backyard" attitude toward development that many MPs fear exerts an impossible drag on major infrastructure projects.

How much has HS2 cost so far?

Delays and spiraling costs have plagued HS2 ever since Cameron and his right-hand man George Osborne, an evangelist for the project, used their early political capital to get it off the ground. Costs quickly rose from £37 billion to £50 billion — and are now said to be closer to the £80-£100 billion mark.

In 2021, Boris Johnson canceled the eastern spur of the line, taking passengers to Leeds and Sheffield, in a bid to get the rest done.

The latest round of cuts are expected to scrap or delay the western spur of the line — from Birmingham to Manchester — as well. 

To top things off, the southern end of the line running into London may now terminate at Old Oak Common — a rail depot in a suburb of northwest London, 10 km from the city center — rather than continuing to Euston, one of the capital’s main termini. Passengers from Birmingham would be expected to disembark and board slower local services for the rest of their journey.

The upshot may be, as Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies think tank put it, a new railway “at a cost of tens of billions, which will get you from Birmingham to central London less quickly than you can do at the moment."

“Ending the line at Old Oak Common is pretty much the definition of a railway to nowhere,” a senior government official told the Times.

While Sunak is pointing the finger of blame at highly paid HS2 executives who pocketed hundreds of thousands of pounds in pay and bonuses as the project collapsed, the saga hints at deeper problems with the way things are built in the U.K.

Leaves on the line

There is a growing sense of despair about the state of public services and infrastructure in Britain, which is only strengthened by comparison with near-neighbors.

Sam Dumitriu of growth campaign group Britain Remade found that even if the original estimate of HS2’s cost had been correct, it would have been more than double the price-per-km of the high-speed connection between Naples and Bari in southern Italy, and 3.7 times more expensive than France’s high-speed link between Tours and Bordeaux.

Not all such initiatives pass off smoothly on the Continent either, of course. A high-speed railway between Lyon and Turin and a tunnel between Germany and Denmark have both been beset by political wrangling — though both cases have the added complication of crossing national borders.

Another megaproject, a high-speed railway connecting the Baltic states with Poland, has been in the works for decades, with billions of euros in funding commitments set aside.

But Dumitriu says Britain has a specific problem — the high costs and complexity caused by the vagaries of its planning system, which seems designed to protect countryside at all costs. He points to a proposed new crossing of the Thames estuary for which the planning application alone cost £267 million — and ran to 60,000 pages.

The planning process for HS2 has proved particularly tortuous due to local opposition along the route of the line, which was due to traverse some of southern England's most genteel countryside. Vociferous Tory MPs representing affected constituencies have successfully lobbied for many more miles of expensive tunnelling than had been planned.

More broadly, Dumitru blames Britain’s “stop-start” approach to undertakings of this scale, which means a diminution of skills and uncertainty for industry between each large infrastructure project. 

“People won't learn by doing if you've only built one high-speed rail line," he said, referencing the 100 km strip of track linking London to the Channel tunnel, built in 2007, "and the next one you're building is 10 or 15 years later.”

Planned upgrades

Others say the government must ultimately carry the can for a major project falling apart on its watch. 

“It tells you something about where 'leveling up' sits now,” said a senior Whitehall official not authorized to speak publicly. “This government has talked big about policy priorities and not backed any of them sufficiently.”

Sunak hopes to avoid accusations of betraying the north by upgrading local transport services instead, though some are skeptical about how successful this will be without the extra speed and capacity offered by HS2.

He — like previous Conservative PMs — has talked about overhauling the planning system, though countless previous efforts have run aground due to opposition from Tory MPs fearful of the impact on their local areas. For now it appears any fresh endeavor will have to wait until after the next election.

Keir Starmer’s Labour, meanwhile, is reluctant to commit to HS2 before the latest official cost estimates are released. His party too has promised planning reform as part of its “five missions for growth,” but details remain vague.

If either leader can actually get meaningful planning reform off the ground, it really would hail a new dawn in British politics. Few in Westminster are holding their breath.