Sam Dumitriu: From road tunnels to railways, Britain has to slash the cost of getting things built

1 September, 2023
ConservativeHome, by Sam Dumitriu


Britain’s taxpayers are getting a poor deal. Public money spent on building new roads, railways, or trams goes much further almost everywhere else than it does in Britain.

Britain Remade, the pro-growth campaign group I work for, looked at over 200 major transport infrastructure projects across 14 different countries. The data revealed that these projects in Britain can cost up to eight times more on a per mile basis than on the continent.

Besançon, a city of just 116,000, was able to build a tramway for half as much as the Manchester’s Metrolink Airport Line extension – Britain’s cheapest tram project. In fact, Britain’s cheapest project is only barely cheaper than France’s most expensive; on average, Brits pay two and a half times more (on a per mile basis) than their French counterparts to build the same length of track.

High Speed 2’s £53bn price tag (and that’s just Phase 1) is eye-watering, but what’s really shocking is when you look at how cheaply other countries can do it. At £396m per mile, Phase 1 of HS2 is more than five times more expensive than Italy’s Naples-Bari line and more than eight and a half times dearer than France’s Tours-Bordeuax line.

Mark Harper recently fulfilled every trainspotter’s dream and visited Japan to ride on their bullet trains. When he returned I hope he had one question for his civil servants: “Why can the Japanese build a bullet train line for almost eight times less than we’re building HS2?”

And it isn’t just complex projects like HS2 that we do badly on. Britain lags behind Europe on rail electrification. Just 38 per cent of our railways are electrified; in France, 55 per cent are, and it’s even higher in Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. As a result, Brits are forced to go work on trains that are less reliable and pollute more than they need to.

Why have we fallen behind on electrification? Cost is surely a factor. The Great Western electrification from London to Swansea went three times over budget and ended up stopping in Cardiff. When they looked into it, the Rail Industry Association found that electrification is delivered up to three times cheaper in Germany, Denmark, and Switzerland.

Part of the problem is that infrastructure decisions too often fall foul of politicians. While Germany has consistently electrified its railways by a bit each year, in Britain it essentially stopped under New Labour, when ministers were dazzled by alternatives like biodiesel.

Why does Britain get a bad deal on transport infrastructure? There’s no silver bullet answer. After all, more than one thing needs to go wrong for a high-speed railway to cost eight times more than what it does elsewhere.

A senior manager at Ferrovial, a Spanish firm that’s built high speed lines all over the world, blames the planning system. He told an infrastructure conference:

“The consenting regime here for these big projects, and getting everything while you are developing the design, creates a lot of issues and that sort of slows down the process. A lot of people, a lot more time and that of course means more cost.”

There can be no doubt that our planning system imposes big costs. An FoI from New Civil Engineer magazine revealed that National Highways had spent £267m on the planning application for the Lower Thames Crossing, a vital new road project to relieve the extreme congestion at the Dartford Tunnel.

That £267m is more than Norway spends on actually building tunnels. In fact, it’s more than double what it cost to build the Laerdal tunnel, the world’s longest road tunnel.

Fixing the planning system is essential to solve this (and many other problems), but it’s not the only problem that needs sorting. A lack of real project management and engineering expertise to scrutinise these mega-projects in the Civil Service allows cost increases go unchallenged, while short-termism in government leads skills and expertise to atrophy.

Crossrail was an engineering marvel, but where’s the next big tunnelling project for the people who built it to move on to? It’s probably overseas.

Fundamentally, we need to address a lack of international curiosity. Other countries build for less, yet where are the DfT reports into Spain’s low-cost metro systems or France’s tramways?

Unless Jeremy Hunt changes course, Britain is set to have a tax burden on par with Spain and Germany in the next five years. Yet, when it comes to infrastructure, those tax receipts will go nowhere near as far.