History, said Karl Marx in 1852, repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. With this week’s damning National Audit Office verdict on the High Speed 2 plans for Euston coming exactly 60 years after the Beeching Report’s controversial reshaping of the rail network condemned some 5,000 miles of track and 2,363 stations to closure, it seems an appropriate aphorism for our current rail policy.
It’s not an exact comparison, of course. While overseeing a dramatic and still contested reduction of the rail network, making him a continuing hate figure for many, Richard Beeching’s proposals, as rail expert Gareth Dennis has argued, did lead to the creation of “inter-city and intermodal services which were genuinely world-leading” and “undeniably pushed British Railways into the modern era”.
However, Dennis also maintains that Beeching oversaw the “long-term diminishment of suburban capacity outside of London” which had a “far more insidious effect on rail usage nationally” than rural line closures. Failing to consider the potential for regional cities to grow led Beeching to focus on long-distance services, Dennis says, with a long-lasting impact on rail’s ability to get commuters out of their cars – “a mistake that we are still trying to unpick”.
If that fundamental flaw might accurately be described as tragic, compounded by the fact that the plan failed to drag the network back to financial sustainability, HS2 was pitched as a corrective to it, aiming to add capacity “where it is needed most”. At Euston it would not only double the number of peak hour seats in and out, but also free up space on existing lines for more local and long distance commuter services, with the new line acting as a catalyst for wider development too.
But the Euston station saga, set out in excruciating detail by the NAO, can properly be labelled as farce. Doubts about the original 11 platform design were raised in the Oakervee review for the government in February 2020. In April that year the budget for the new station was set at £2.6 billion, but just two months later its estimated cost had soared to £4.4 billion.
A new “cost-saving” 10 platform plan was agreed, albeit not until late 2021, ditching £106 millions-worth of completed work. But the figure is now estimated at £4.8 billion – higher than the 11-platform scheme and £2.2 billion over budget. More than £2 billion has been spent so far on the new station, and a further £1.5 billion on buying up land and preparatory works at the site.
Original budgets were unrealistic and costs forecast to go down were instead subject to 18 per cent inflation. There was no additional help from the Treasury, which ordered increases to be contained within agreed budgets, and governance across the three Euston projects – the new HS2 station, a £1 billion-plus improvement plan for the existing mainline station and a wider “over site” regeneration – was judged “sub-optimal”.
And the “pause” ordered by the government this month, meaning the station may not open until the 2040s, won’t actually save any money. In fact, “it will lead to additional costs and potentially to higher spend overall,” according to the NAO. “Clearly”, it concludes in typically understated terms, “the 2020 reset of the station design has not succeeded.”
This is no laughing matter for those with an interest in the wider regeneration of Euston on the back of HS2’s arrival, including a local community now living, in Camden Council leader Georgia Gould’s words, alongside a “partially abandoned building site, with huge areas fenced off creating a barrier between our communities and a general stagnation which leads to opportunities being lost.”
One of those trumpeting the benefits of wider regeneration around the station was Minister for London Paul Scully. “If we can’t get more investment into the terminus and make it a more wraparound project rather than just a simple terminus coming in and out, we’re missing out on a really big regeneration project, where a billion pounds-worth of our investment can lever £10 billion-worth of private investment,” he told a London Research and Policy Partnership meeting in October 2021.
At around the same time, as the NAO report details, the Department for Transport was considering more development in order to “maximise the wider benefits from the site”, funded by the proceeds of selling off public land. But, Scully’s arguments notwithstanding, that approach was vetoed by the Treasury, which argued that the “case for additional investment was uncertain”.
Coupled with the mothballing of the station, that means further question marks over ambitious plans by government-appointed developers Lendlease for some 2,000 homes and 19,000 jobs in the area around the station and above the HS2 platforms – something Camden in particular has seen as an essential trade-off for years of displacement and disruption.
The Treasury’s stance raises questions as well over plans for 25,000 homes and “tens of thousands” of jobs on government-owned land around the new HS2 station at Old Oak Common, where negotiations are underway between Sadiq Khan’s development corporation and Whitehall over the “up-front” investment needed to kick-start the scheme. This could come from “recycling” land sale receipts into the project – the very approach the Treasury rejected at Euston.
Let’s go back to the mid-19th Century and Charles Dickens’s prescient description in Dombey and Son of the first railway at Euston as “yet unfinished and unopened”. It could equally well describe today’s scene: “Houses were knocked down; streets broken through and stopped; deep pits and trenches dug in the ground; enormous heaps of earth and clay thrown up.”
At that time, as Dickens records, “one or two bold speculators had projected streets, and one had built a little, but had stopped among the mud and ashes to consider farther of it…” Now, as then, a lot depends on the outcome of that pause for further consideration, for Euston, London and beyond.