HS2 is about more than just cutting journey times between London and Birmingham. It is about capacity

Prime minister Boris Johnson has warned the cabinet that there will be no “sacred cows” in the search for projects to be culled in a bid to cut government spending. Nothing looks more like a sacred cow than High Speed 2, the planned rail line to run from London to the midlands and the north. Originally a Labour grand project, it survived and even prospered under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition and the following Conservative government, despite mounting evidence of ballooning costs and poor governance.

A dissenting report this month by the deputy chair of the panel tasked with reviewing the project before Mr Johnson’s edict pulled no punches. The final bill for the taxpayer could top £100bn, claimed its author Tony Berkeley. The Labour peer said his own assessment of the HS2 business case suggested the cost of the project had more than doubled to £107bn at 2015 prices. Not only that but the benefit/cost ratio was so poor the taxpayer would only receive 60p for every pound spent. HS2’s latest cost estimate for Britain’s biggest infrastructure project is £88bn.

None of this bodes well for the success of the high-speed line. Britain has a history of poor management of large-scale infrastructure projects. Priority has in the past been accorded to schemes in London and the south-east at the expense of other regions. This must change. Mr Johnson has pledged to rebalance growth and productivity across the nation and put infrastructure at the heart of his government’s policy agenda. HS2 has many failings but, a decade in and with more than £7bn already spent, the project is “shovel-ready”. Backing it is therefore the sensible way forward.

Politicians have made a poor fist of explaining the point of the scheme. The results of the review, led by Douglas Oakervee, a former HS2 chair, must readdress the strategic case. It is about more than just cutting journey times between London and Birmingham. It is about capacity. Rail passenger growth has slowed in recent years but — when the government is under pressure to meet tough carbon reduction targets — the scheme would expand overall capacity and help tempt people off the roads if fares are priced correctly.

It would also free up existing railway lines. The same lines currently carry express intercity trains, slower, stopping services and freight. The gaps needed between these different types of trains make the system inefficient. Building HS2 would, for example, take express trains off the crowded West Coast main line that links London with Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow. That would enable local services to run more trains.

Alternatives — such as upgrading existing lines in the north — have been mooted but adding to existing infrastructure that dates from the Victorian era is a poor substitute and would lead to its own level of disruption. HS2 is also a key part of plans to upgrade links between cities in the north. It would be the backbone of an east-west network, especially in the midlands. The £39bn Northern Powerhouse Rail scheme will also share sections of line with HS2.

The review must include fresh cost estimates. A comprehensive cost breakdown of the Y-shaped network has not been published since 2013. The scope should be scaled back. Cutting train speeds from 250mph to 210mph could save about £8bn. It should consider how much tunnelling is needed, and weigh the merits of a costly central London tunnel to the Euston terminus against ending the line at Old Oak Common, to the west. Above all, a truly independent delivery body is needed to oversee the scheme. It is time to get British high-speed rail back on track.

Letter in response to this editorial:

Shovel readiness does not justify more HS2 spending / From Michael Lipton, Brighton, UK, Emeritus Professor of Economics, Sussex University

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