Speculation about the future of High Speed 2 (HS2), the long planned brand new rail link between London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Glasgow and several other destinations in the North of England, has further intensified with the Financial Times reporting details of an unpublished review of the project commissioned by national government.
The first section of the HS2 line was scheduled to be built between London and Birmingham and to open at the end of 2026, but transport secretary Grant Shapps said in September that it will be delayed for between two and five years. A second phase, which would see HS2 connecting Birmingham with Leeds and Manchester, was supposed to be finished by 2033 might now not open until 2040.
The FT says the unpublished review, led by former HS2 chairman Doug Oakervee, concludes that the overall cost of HS2 could rise as high as £106 billion – in 2015, the price was put at £56 billion – and recommends that the second phase is paused so that consideration can be given to whether conventional rail lines could be used to better link Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester instead.
Another report about HS2, by spending watchdog the National Audit Office, is expected very soon. Both assessments are being made against the backdrop of Boris Johnson’s general election gains in the Midlands and North of England and frequent promises to “level up” the UK by assisting those regions of England. Shapps said at the weekend that a decision about HS2 is “weeks away”. The government had previously said it would be taken before the end of 2019.
When he was London Mayor, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was a strong advocate of HS2 and its value to London, right up until the end of his eight years at City Hall. In December 2015, less than six months before the end of his second and final term, he hailed the plan of bringing the line right the way into Euston station as a “once in a lifetime chance to transform the Euston area”, including the redevelopment of the station itself.
In July 2011, he told an anti-HS2 campaigner that the scheme at that time did not serve the capital well enough, explaining that he wanted the line to enter Central London through tunnels and an increase in Underground capacity to cope with a larger influx of people.
However, the Mail on Sunday recently reported that Johnson’s transport adviser Andrew Gilligan, a vehement opponent of HS2, has been urging Johnson to scrap the London to Birmingham and prioritise the current phase two instead. In May last year, when he was working as a journalist for the Sunday Times, Gilligan highlighted the findings of a YouGov poll which found that most people in the North and in the Midlands and Wales opposed what he called “this disastrous scheme”.
Gilligan, a media ally of Johnson going back to the 2008 mayoral election campaign, was given the job of mayoral “cycling commissioner” by Johnson in 2013 despite his having no prior experience in transport planning. Transport for London research shows that the network of infrastructure for helping cyclists Gilligan insisted be installed in the capital has so far failed to bring about any significant increase in the capital’s cycling population.
The attitudes to HS2 of candidates for London Mayor will be important to some London voters and may give an indication of their views towards rail transport more generally.
For the Liberal Democrats, Siobhan Benita told on On London that HS2 “feels like Crossrail all over again, with spiralling costs, delays and incompetent management” and that the delay announced last year “will have a serious impact on businesses in the capital that have rightly planned around the opening date they were previously given.” She added that the project “will undoubtedly bring a huge boost to London and the whole country but we need more honesty and transparency about the cost which is clearly running out of control.”
The incumbent Mayor, Labour’s Sadiq Khan, who is to seek a second term, supports the project but said in November that he had urged the Oakervee review to reject the idea of the service terminating at Old Oak Common instead of at Euston, as this would put additional pressure on the Crossrail Elizabeth Line when it eventually opens. He argued that HS2 stations are needed in both places. Khan also underlined his enthusiasm for HS2 to trigger regeneration around Euston. He suggested slower trains rather than reduced capacity on the line itself as a way of reducing costs.
A spokesperson for Mayor Khan told On London: “The whole of the UK is in desperate need of rail investment. And it can’t be a zero-sum game, playing the needs of one part of the country against another. With London’s population continuing to grow it is essential that the government also shows its commitment to Crossrail 2 and other crucial infrastructure projects in London. These will boost our economy by billions of pounds and importantly tackle the chronic levels of overcrowding that could develop on London’s tube and rail networks if no action is taken.”
The Green Party wants HS2 cancelled completely and its London Mayor candidate Siân Berry told On London today: “Costs for HS2 are spiralling out of control, with the Conservatives now looking at pumping £100 billion into a project that mutilates our countryside and shaves a mere 20 minutes off a journey from London to Birmingham. If we cancel this white elephant now we’ll only have lost £8 billion and we can put the remaining £90-plus billion into an HS2 dividend that would mean massive and unprecedented investment in rail, and new bus routes, walking and cycling in every town across the country.”
Independent candidate Rory Stewart, when running to be leader of the Conservative Party last summer, told Conservative Home that he would not commit to cancelling HS2 as one reader requested, but would commission a “rapid review from independent experts to draw on views in government and the regions, to ensure that costs are controlled and that the projects work for the whole country.” He added: “My personal instinct is that we should prioritise infrastructure investment in the North of England.”
For the Conservatives, Shaun Bailey called last July for a “pause” on HS2 and said that “instead of continuing with HS2 as it stands the government should send the funds to the regions” instead. In a speech to a gathering of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, Bailey said it wasn’t clear to him that “better connecting London to the North and vice versa in what we need in Britain at this point in our history”.
On London has contacted candidates Stewart and Bailey for any fresh comment on HS2 they wish to make. This article will be updated if and when they respond.
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