Why the delay to HS2 could strike a double blow to rail in the North

As the campaign for the General Election on December 12 starts in earnest, Yorkshire is set to be a key battle ground.

The construction site for the HS2 high speed rail scheme in Euston Photo: Victoria Jones/PA Wire

Each of the parties will be setting out their promises of support and investment in the economy of the North, including new investment in transport infrastructure.

It seems unlikely, however, that we will have a clear position from the Government on the future of HS2 until after the campaign is over.

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When he took office, the Prime Minister ordered an independent review into the future of HS2 and promised a clear ‘go or no go’ decision in the autumn.

The emergence of further cost increases and likely delays means a desire to review the project is understandable.

But with a new Government not being formed until the middle of December there are significant risks that what was promised to be a short period of uncertainty about the future of HS2 will drag on and on.

Whoever wins the next election needs to give a clear commitment to the future of HS2 as soon as possible.

A decision to review the project just before construction work was due begin on the first phase increases the potential damage to the construction sector and long-term confidence in the UK’s ability to deliver major infrastructure projects, such as the promised investment in new high-speed rail links across the Pennines through the Northern Powerhouse Rail project.

Business across the UK have delivered significant investment in preparation for work on HS2 to start.

Nearly 2,000 businesses have worked on the project and 9,000 people are already employed directly or indirectly by the scheme. GB Railfreight, with a major centre of operations in Doncaster, has been preparing to support construction logistics, including removing spoil and waste, and delivering inbound materials.

A long period of uncertainty would mean that expertise and resources which have been built up over the years in preparation for construction work to start would have to be redeployed with jobs lost in the UK and investment moving overseas.

This would mean that if HS2 was eventually given the go ahead, costs could rise even further as these resources and expertise will have to be built up again.

A decision to cancel HS2 would be a huge blow to the UK construction sector which is already suffering from a downturn.

Some critics of HS2 have called for investment to be diverted to the Northern Powerhouse Rail plans to deliver high speed rail connections across the North.

A cancellation of HS2 could in fact put the delivery of this project at risk.

Expertise which would have been developed during the construction phase of HS2 wouldn’t be available to the UK by the time that the construction of key sections of Northern Powerhouse Rail is due to begin.

The history of rail electrification in the UK is a useful lesson.

A long period of no major investment with projects being cancelled or delayed meant that once the Government made the decision to go ahead with electrification in the 2010s cost spiralled and projects had to be significantly curtailed.

There simply wasn’t the capacity left in the UK to deliver major projects like this.

We need to avoid Northern Powerhouse Rail and other major infrastructure projects suffering from the same fate, by ensuring that our political representatives are clear about the risk a double blow, of further delay or cancellation of HS2.

Not just the loss of the benefits of that scheme to our economy but the impact on the future of other projects which will support jobs and growth in the North.

By John Smith, managing director GB Railfreight