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Here's looking at you HS2: Is the project already in trouble?

5 min read

07 December 2018

Reporter, Real Business

HS2 promises to provide a fast and reliable train service from major regional cities to London, but is the project already in trouble before it has even begun?

HS2 is a rail project that has been in the pipeline for many years. But will it even be going ahead?

According to reports made by the BBC, things may not be running as smoothly as initially thought.

Concerns over the budget and if the project will be delivered on time have accelerated in recent months, with the resignation of its recently-appointed chairman, Sir Terry Morgan, throwing another spanner into the  works.

But why is this happening?

First, let’s familiarise ourselves with HS2 and why it’s being built.

Why HS2?

As we’re increasingly aware, the UK rail system isn’t running that well. This has been made clear by the systemic delays commuters have been experiencing with Southern Railway and other services in recent years.

With the UK train economy being increasingly defined by delays and even cancellations, the impetus for reliable and high-speed links has grown, and the government is being pressured to do something about it.

“The system is bursting at the seams… the reality is, the system is full. If the slightest thing goes wrong, that can disrupt the network quite significantly”. – Chris Grayling, Transport Secretary

The government’s response has been the HS2 rail project, a high-speed direct service that will connect regional employment hubs, such as Birmingham to London.

High-speed rail links, such as HS2 will take the pressure off commuter services and leave more room for freight, say the government. Well, they would say that as it’s the most ambitious transport programme they’ve developed for a number of years.

Why did Morgan resign?

“The challenge, of course, is the scope, the time, and the cost [of HS2] have already been set, and the engineers are now busy trying to assess just how they will build the work that’s needed to construct it. There is a challenge inside the project,” he said.

What Morgan’s comment reveals is a concern about a lack of strategic planning right at the heart of the HS2 project.

HS2 has been set a budget of £55.7bn to deliver rail lines from London to Birmingham and even on to Manchester and Leeds, with the first phase to open by December 2026. However, engineers are trying to work out how they can facilitate the preparation stage of the project before the real works even begin.

The problems with the project

Some believe that HS2 will cost a lot more than the estimated £55.7bn set out for it.

“It’s very difficult to see how you maintain a positive, attractive cost-benefit analysis, prepared in 2015 before the project received royal assent, when the costs have probably doubled. That cost benefit-analysis will probably have disappeared.” – Michael Byng, Network Rail

He went on to say that he estimates the cost for the first phase of the project from London to Birmingham to be around £56bn, and that the whole project could cost double that amount.

“I think there is a lot of bad news to come from the [HS2] numbers. The work that we’ve done indicates that the cost will be about double. I think that’s really serious. When you get into a figure that’s probably £100bn for a high-speed line, that’s an awful lot of money.” – Lord Berkeley, MP

“I’m very clear on HS2 – it’s got a budget, it’s got to live with that budget. The budget is [about] £55.5bn at 2014 prices, that’s all there’s going to be”, said Grayling when asked if the project would run over budget.

The work that’s begun

Now, this is when things get a little fuzzy.

Whilst the BBC says that the start of civil engineering work on HS2 has been pushed back to June next year, Grayling says the wheels have already started running on HS2:

“It’s happening now. I’ve been to the start of works ceremony in Birmingham. The work is taking place in and around Euston, in and around Birmingham station at the HS2 station there. The work is happening, it currently employs 6,000 people.” – Chris Grayling

A government spokesperson for HS2 added that the project would be completed by December 2026.

– So, with the appointment of a new chairman in the form of chartered engineer Allan Cook, we’ll have to wait until next year to see what the next developments will be.