The British prime minister today confirmed the High Speed 2 railway project will go ahead, despite spiraling costs and opposition from part of the ruling Conservative Party,Politico has extensively reported.
Branded Europe’s biggest infrastructure project, the Y-shaped HS2 rail line will first link London with Birmingham in the north of England and later with Manchester and Leeds.
In a statement to the House of Commons, Boris Johnson approved the whole line, but said he would explore options for saving costs, appoint a minister to oversee the project full time, and task a new ministerial oversight group with taking strategic decisions about it.
HS2’s original budget was £32.7 billion at 2011 prices, but the most recent estimates say it could cost up to £106 billion. Citing the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, Johnson said the costs of the first phase of the project could amount to between £35 billion and £45 billion in today’s prices.
“This country is being held back by its inadequate infrastructure,” Johnson told MPs, adding his government had the “guts to take the decision” to deliver prosperity across the U.K.
“We face a historic choice,” he said. “We can try to get by with the existing route between north and south, condemning the next generation to overcrowding and standing up, or we can make the decision, no matter how difficult and controversial, that will deliver prosperity to every part of the country.”
Johnson decided to go ahead despite fierce opposition from his top adviser Dominic Cummings, an outspoken critic of the project, and about 60 Tory MPs, most of whom argued HS2 is poorly designed and a waste of public money.
The green light — the ninth time successive U.K. governments have signed off on the project — comes more than a decade after Labour established HS2 Ltd to examine the case for a new high-speed rail line. Services between London and Birmingham could start in 2030-36.
According to the National Audit Office, a combination of delays and the failure of the government and the delivery body HS2 Ltd to grasp the complexity and magnitude of the scheme multiplied its costs. The prime minister argued the project should go ahead despite Hs2 Ltd’s “poor management.”
Infrastructure is seen as a key element of Johnson’s agenda to “level up” parts of the country that feel they have been left behind.
In a bid to win back the Conservative MPs who opposed HS2, Johnson also committed £5 billion to create 250 miles of new cycle routes and boost bus services outside London, with some of this money funding the purchase of 4,000 zero-emission buses.
Johnson added he would integrate HS2 with Northern Powerhouse Rail, an east-west railway project connecting Leeds and Manchester and other major northern English cities, for which no feasibility study has been conducted yet.
A government-commissioned review into the HS2 project, carried out by Douglas Oakervee and published Tuesday, “leaves no doubt of the clinching case for high-speed rail,” the prime minister added.
The Oakervee review “strongly advises against canceling the HS2 scheme,” and says the original rationale for the project — the need for greater capacity and reliability on the rail network — still holds. It says HS2 only represents value for money if the entire railway is built.
Johnson appears to have only partially appeased critics within his party. The Conservative MP for North West Leicestershire, Andrew Bridgen, insisted the decision will not do the prime minister any favors in the Tory heartlands. “I think it will be an albatross around this government’s neck, the Labour Party will vote for it because it’s a stick with which they will beat the government for many years to come,” he told BBC Radio 5 Live.
Politicians and industry bodies in the north of England called on the government to also commit to build the Northern Powerhouse Rail.
“The north of England needs new rail lines that go north-south and west-east,” said Connecting Britain, a coalition of business and political leaders including Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram — the metro mayors of Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region respectively. “London isn’t being forced to choose, it’s getting Crossrail and HS2. We shouldn’t be forced to either. We need HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail delivered in full.”
The U.K.’s freight industry urged the government to guarantee it will use the high-speed rail line to free up space for rail freight services on existing lines. “The U.K.’s rail network is bursting at the seams and too often freight loses out to commuter and leisure services,” said Alex Veitch, head of multimodal policy at the Freight Transport Association. “With HS2 trains able to carry more than 300,000 people per day, the shift in traffic will release significant capacity on existing lines.”
Britain’s only high-speed railway is the stretch running from St Pancras station in London to the Channel Tunnel, a 113-kilometer run serving London and the Eurostar route to Paris and Brussels. That is only marginally more express track than the Netherlands has, and a pitiful length compared to big European rivals such as France, Germany, Spain and Italy along.
As France got to work on its great TGV industrial project in the 1960s, British planners were busy scrapping intercity and regional routes following the infamous Beeching report which recommended scaling back the network to save money. Transport Minister Grant Shapps described the so-called Beeching cuts as “terrible” during a speech at the Eurostar terminal in London last week.