The UK government has approved the continuation of construction of the High Speed 2 (HS2) railway network. This decision has however, divided opinion as costs have spiralled out of control. Advocates argue HS2 is an essential project which will bring the UK’s railway connections into the 21st Century. Critics, however, argue the costs far outweigh the benefits and the money could be better spent elsewhere. But why is it so controversial? HS2 is the largest infrastructure project undertaken since the World War two. The line will be built in two phases. Phase 1 will run from London to the West Midlands, just north of Birmingham. Phase 2 has not yet been confirmed but is planned to run from the West Midlands to Crewe, Manchester & Leeds. According to the latest estimates, phase 1 could be completed as late as 2031, nearly 5 years behind the original opening date. Phase 2 is currently due to be completed in 2040 but the government aims to bring this in sooner.
The government has touted HS2 as an important element in reducing the economic divide between the North and South of England. HS2 will provide more capacity on stretched services, improving the passenger experience. The controversy primarily surrounds the escalating costs. When the project was first approved it was budgeted at just £43 billion. By 2015, this rose to £56 billion. The latest figure put the cost at a staggering £106 billion. This has raised serious questions over whether the government can justify spending such a large sum on this project. In addition, the environmental damages of construction may not outweigh the environmental benefits. Many suggest HS2 will not shift people from their cars onto the railway. In this article we will explore the pros and cons of HS2 to determine whether the project is good value for money.
Why is it so expensive to build?
All major infrastructure projects are costly. But some issues are particular to HS2 which have led to the huge escalation in costing estimates that we have seen.
Shifting our underground networks
HS2 is the largest railway project since the Victoria era and as society developed, we have introduced an enormous web of underground wiring and pipes. Manoeuvring around all these underground obstacles is highly costly. In addition, there are numerous natural features such as rivers which are also taken into consideration during construction phase. The construction team require enough space and suitable land for heavy machinery to operate so managing these obstacles has proved more costly than anticipated. In some cases, roads and rivers have been moved in order to make way for construction.
The cost of purchasing land and property was drastically underestimated and was a significant reason the initial estimates were so far off. Some locations along the route were not even given a value in the initial estimates. This failure has led to this seemingly endless escalation in costs. It is worth noting the updated costings only factor in the review of Phase 1 of the HS2 route. The HS2 route has not yet been approved so any environmental and technical issues will not be identified until the route is confirmed. The same inadequate costing methods were likely applied to the valuation of Phase 2 which could see the total cost of HS2 increase substantially.
Alongside the above factors, mismanagement and lack of capitalisation on efficiency savings have also contributed to the exorbitant figure.
Speed and capacity
HS2 is pushing the boundaries in terms of speed and capacity and has been designed as a rail network of the future. The trains will be the fastest in Europe and second fastest in the world. They will travel at up to 360 km/h (224mph), slashing journey times from London to Birmingham travel times from one hour 21 minutes to just 52 minutes. Getting people to their destinations quicker is an important element in boosting national productivity and HS2 can contribute to this.
The additional capacity provided by HS2 is a huge benefit of the new network. Each train will have as many as 1,100 seats and there will be 18 trains per hour on the Phase 1 route. This will no doubt free up more capacity on current services. Crucially, with greater supply of capacity, could bring lower prices for consumers on these routes.
Too late to quit
Work has already begun; contracts have been issued and people have already been ordered to leave their homes. £7.4 billion has already been spent on the project so pulling the plug could prove highly costly while leaving absolutely nothing to show for it. While keeping face should not be a reason to continue an unfeasible project, this would have undoubtedly influenced the decision.
The main driving force the review into HS2 was the spiralling costs. The estimated £106 billion is still very rough as Phase 2 of the project has not been thoroughly costed yet so the final figure will likely be even greater. This fundamentally raises the question, do the benefits justify the cost? Many would argue it does not, particularly as the number of people benefiting from the line will be so limited. Rail fares in the UK are the highest in Europe and HS2 is highly unlikely to buck the trend in this regard. HS2 season tickets for London to Birmingham could cost over £15,000, nearly £4000 more than current prices for this route. The average local commuter is unlikely to benefit significantly from HS2, undermining the justification of spending such a huge sum. The government argue there will always be opposition to every costly infrastructure project, but such projects are essential to economic growth. The soaring costs of construction and projected ticket prices however, suggest that HS2 may not be good value for money.
Given the seemingly limited benefits for large portions of society, many critics argue £106 billion can better spent elsewhere. It may not be until 2040 that the second phase in the North is complete. Given the route largely connects a few major towns and cities, most Northern residents will not see any benefits at all. Most stations on the planned routes are already relatively well connected but there are countless smaller towns and villages with inadequate or non-existent public transport links. All the resources spent on HS2 could be better used on creating and improving these local routes. This would undoubtedly ease overcrowding and decrease congestion on the roads. With £100 billion, it is estimated that 1250 miles of railway could be electrified. For perspective, 1250 miles is nearly double the length of Great Britain. Electrified railways makes travel quicker and more efficient. People in many areas drive simply because there is no other efficient alternative, or any alternative at all. A fraction of the HS2 budget and resources put into expanding local routes could make a world of difference, both environmentally and in terms of productivity.
The environmental cost of construction of HS2 will unsurprisingly be substantial. The emissions simply from construction are estimated to be nearly 1.5 million tonnes of CO2 emissions. The need to keep the line straight in order to achieve high speed means an estimated 350 natural habitat sites including ancient woods, rivers and wildlife reserves could be destroyed to make way. While any major construction project will undoubtedly cause no cause major pollution, this should be offset by the long-term benefits which seem limited in the case of HS2.
The argument that HS2 will get people off planes and roads is also weak. HS2 will largely serve train routes that are already connected but will simply increase speed and capacity. Routes which have limited or no connections at all are where people are forced to drive rather than take public transport. The planned HS2 route will do nothing to address this so there is unlikely be any major shift from roads to trains, negating the environmental arguments in favour of HS2.
Taking all into account, there are notable benefits of HS2 but these do not appear to justify the expense and opportunity cost. Considering Phase 2 hasn’t been approved, there is every possibility that the final sum could double again to realms of £200 billion. Although HS2 will connect 30 million people, only a fraction of these people are likely to ever use the line regularly. Tickets are unlikely to be affordable for most commuters with season tickets for London to Birmingham estimated to cost over £15,000. With local train services screaming for upgrades, it is evident that the £106 billion+ could be better spent investing here. Furthermore, had the costs been more accurately estimated from the start, this could have reshaped the debate on HS2. Despite all the criticism however, HS2 is going ahead. Taxpayer money is committed and construction continues. Whether the project can prove doubters wrong and become a success story of Britain’s infrastructure remains to be seen.